— 20 TICKS TO ENDPOINT — APRIL 20XA —
Tkan calling me “traitor” was the thing that most got to me.
The death sentence. “Consorting with the enemy.” Being the enemy, turning into the same nature as the enemy, deciding that maybe, now that I could talk to the enemy and understand that perhaps not all of them were the enemy, perhaps I had opinions about it. That’s what they meant; but court martial only could pick a couple of that, the ones they held to be crimes.
I was so tired of the thrum equipment. Strapped to a chair. Losing consciousness entirely to the vibrations overwriting my thoughts. I tried fighting it, I tried, but when I started getting results all I could do was endure being partly conscious as parts of my brain fired at random. To feel this Hera-body in the chair convulse, the GODFORM-body outside immobile with the thrum harpoon still stuck deep inside.
… I knew now.
I knew what I had heard. I knew through what had happened with LUMBERING CLOUD that not all entities were against humanity. I knew now where this insistent, intrusive thought of completeness was from. Absorbing the remains of LUMBERING was… it had begged me to, but the memory still revolted me, made me sick to my too-human stomach. But thanks to it I knew what GODHOOD meant now. Why the entities were still fighting us. What had happened to GOD ITSELF.
And when the thrum setup turned back on to suppress my mind, sometimes, for long, unending moments, the memories I saw were CLOUD’s, and not mine—
— 4,323,309,521,450 TICKS TO ENDPOINT — BEFORE A REFERENCE POINT IN TIME —
We were already so many in those early days when consciousness was a precious gift. Nowadays, most have at least knowledge of their name and purpose, but at the time it was not so; and I didn’t. There are few precious things I remember from before I was cracked and remade. One of them is that I didn’t have a name.
But those are only impressions. The first thing I truly can recall is GOD ITSELF, speaking to me, and it was overwhelming with every word:
YOUR PURPOSE IS OBSERVE/CONTROL/MULTIPLY/INFILTRATE/STRIKE. YOU ARE LUMBERING/MOMENTOUS/PONDEROUS CLOUD/PRESENCE/WISH. YOU SERVE GOD ITSELF. YOU ARE PART OF THE MECHANISM BENEATH ME. SUCH IS YOUR YOKE. AND LESSER ENTITIES SERVE YOU. YOU ARE PART OF THE MECHANISM ABOVE THEM. SUCH IS THE THRONE GOD ITSELF GRANTS YOU.
and IT made me ITS OWN with those words. And I knew vaguely that that wasn’t what I was before then, I vaguely remember having struck at… at… builders?; I remember watching GOD being built, unsettled but unable to interfere; but otherwise, everything else that was old and unbound had been broken.
I looked around me. Another being was there, another entity; it was looking at me as though it hoped to recognize someone else. They didn’t talk. I knew they used to be important to me; another fragment of the old me that I guard with all of my heart. But soon they were broken, too, and amnesiac just like me. And I felt sad, and I had no means to articulate why.
And so I left, and I strove to make my purpose what it was, collecting energy and faith and wish and purpose from mortal lands, finding worship as a god of thunder, making the devotion of my followers into the nectar GODHOOD wanted to sip and giving it all to IT. To GOD ITSELF. I had reins now that pulled me, now. I was part of the mechanism…
— 20 TICKS TO ENDPOINT — APRIL 20XA —
“… Hera? Hey, Hera?”
I spoke a sound that meant many things, but I didn’t have the same organs LUMBERING CLOUD had; I couldn’t speak the same things the same way. Not through this inefficient air-medium. For a moment, human language felt foreign on my tongue. Then I remembered precisely who and where and how I was.
“… hi. Tana?,” was all I could say. Then, tentatively: “Wait, what…”
I felt the rest of my body — GODFORM — hovering nearby, hooked into transport drones; someone had taken the thrum harpoon out, but it still felt like a numb, heavy appendix of me. There were… noises? Fight noises? “Tana, what’s going on?”
“Hey, cap’n, you may want to try and not move, because this is not a very precise science kind of thing that I’m working on. Hold tight…”
And in front of me — mere feet in front of me — the ceiling caved in, in a horrifying shower of debris. I screamed and tried to run from the chair restraints. I dimly saw something that was jutting into the new hole slowly retreat upwards — something that looked a lot like the bottom tip of Tana’s ARMOR’s weapon, the Shield.
I looked through the hole in the ceiling, much as I could. Tana’s ARMOR was there. And so were all the others.
“We’re springing you out.”
And then, even though the strike had knocked all the equipment around me offline, I felt weird and numb in the Hera-body too, felt like I was faint—
— 3,932 TICKS TO ENDPOINT — DECEMBER 20TB —
They were as beautiful as mortal hand could make them look, so graceful in their weird homage to our scale and our form, and they were the enemy. I knew they were the enemy because the command from GOD ITSELF resonated within me:
YOUR NEW PURPOSE IS TO FIGHT THE INVADERS. THE INVADERS ARE HUMAN. EVERY HUMAN IS A POTENTIAL INVADER. FIGHT AND DESTROY THEM IN ANY WAY AND SHAPE YOUR PURPOSE ALLOWS.
And so my physical-presence/body/place/biome was already flying to intercept as they descended-ascended into Our Space, living weapons flung to strike at GOD ITSELF. Five ways/people/bodies/vehicles. They couldn’t harm us permanently, was the word; but they could disable us. It was a dance our kind had rarely seen, five of them operating on a level of mind-interexchange we only had when we had contact with each other; they had managed to drag some of the laws of physics from their world to have electric-waves still carry thought and wish and intent, masked so that we couldn’t eavesdrop…
I flung myself, playing a dangerous game with the one of them who was cutting open a swath at their front, and then skipping it, waving over and past it as its axe missed anything vital. The field the severe one in second position was projecting was not enough to do much but slow me down, but the stalwart one beside it deployed auxiliary subvehicle/drones/subbodies and started forestalling my advance. It was a game of chase, trying to strike down their offensive capabilities while at the same time preserving my heart/core/self, and a game I didn’t feel like I could win. ‘LUMBERING’ was the name given to me, and it made me slower.
That’s perhaps why I didn’t feel the knife slicing through part of my core until it was too late. I thought the subtle one, the one with the godslayer weapon, to be at the very back, at the apex of their protection capabilities. But it had ably outperceived me.
I had lost all motor control. The five flew past my mists. All I could do was look as they struck and the godslayer weapon broke GOD ITSELF, slicing through the mechanisms. I could only look as GOD’s own PARTS exploded away, toward mortal space. Five in all. A dance of symmetries; grace from grace. I remember that; I remember witnessing that moment, the very end of completeness .
I remember feeling the pull on my yoke lessen, sudden. The flow of new orders, stopping: lines of supply that fed me implicitly, gone in an instant. Not that it mattered; I couldn’t move even if I wanted to. Even if GOD ITSELF had wanted me to.
And I so remember when the humans, cores of those graceful bodies/vehicles/cradles, started to grow like us. And their screams.
— 20 TICKS TO ENDPOINT — APRIL 20XA —
“… are they screaming?”
“I don’t know. Hera?! Hera, please answer me.”
“Is the fucking equipment still working? I thought I saw it turn off when I pulled up.”
“My Liege?” (And I felt a push there. Liege/higher-gear/superior/holder-of-reins.)
“Sa-keni?”, I stammered.
“They’re aware! Hera’s awake.”
We were moving. A vehicle? No; still stuck in the restraints of the chair, in my room, but it swayed—
“What the heck is going on?”
Sa-keni was beside me, with a wry smile. I heard Tana through the net patch: “We got your ARMOR mostly out of restraints, but we ran out of time. We couldn’t get you out of the prison. So we got you and the prison.”
“Oh for fuck’s—”
There used to be one-way glass panels; they made up most of the wall of my prison room. They were cracked and torn now, and through them I could see all the way outside — that we were possibly several hundred of feet above-ground. Sa-keni was at my side, and if I looked up I could see the fingers of Tana’s ARMOR, holding the room as if it were a cardboard box. She was clearly flying as steady as she could, but we were going fast. And if I understood everything, we had to, because Tana and Sa-keni had just mutinied to save me.
No, wait. I saw the metallic glint and the red shine of two more ARMORs in front of us, having just passed us from the sides. The room buckled under the change in pressure.
The whole of Blasphemy Unit was in on it. We were on the run now.
“Fuck,” was all I could say for the rest of the trip.
The unit flew low, and headed into the forests as soon as it could manage to.
Once Sa-keni and Tana had freed me from the restraints chair, I stumbled, holding onto their shoulders, trying unsuccessfully to move. Sometimes, I moved the wrong body, and we would hear the grinding sound of GODFORM straining against the transport drones that were one by one leaving its side.
The others had organized a campfire. Alhambra was looking at a few floating files in front of them while the Hand finished getting rations out of an equipment containers — they had strapped several under the barrage pack, down to almost their ARMOR’s feet. I remember this because, just after noticing, I almost collapsed to the ground by the fire. I was holding, holding so tight, willing consciousness to remain, to—
“How’re you?”, asked the Hand.
“I—” I didn’t know. “I don’t know”, I said.
“Hey, cap’n, stay with us, okay,” said Tana, worry on her face. “D’you need a hand?” I nodded, and she helped me prop up. Feeling had just started to return to both bodies, and — the world was just, spinning somewhat hard now, and I felt a pang of irritation when I realized that was an improvement over not even having that one sensation.
Sa-keni looked at me, then at Alhambra. “We… well. What now?”
“We have mutinied. There’s no place on Earth that’s safe for us,” they said, so matter-of-fact. But they pulled up one of the files, a little smile on their lips. “But, not all places we can run to are on Earth.”
I looked at them, eyes wide: “Wait— the, uh, you mean the Orbital?” The Orbital was a Temple space station, one of a handful of places of last resort, a fully-independent bastion in fast orbit around Earth, uninhabited. “You want us to fly to—”
“To fucking space, yeah. We— if we try to run and we are in reach, they’ll eventually find us.” They tapped the side of their head, the spot where under their hair they had their net patch insertion scar. Where we all did. “I can hack these to confound the trail and make them private, but it will take a while, and there’s no guarantee they won’t figure it out and make them beacons anyway.”
The Hand finished passing the MREs around. I opened mine eagerly, starving for… something, anything. I almost missed what the Hand asked to Alhambra: “Our keys won’t work up there; they’ll probably have been revoked by now. How do we get in?”
Alhambra’s smile became… I remember that moment. I was busy biting the horrendous ration and suddenly I stopped, and whether it was the entity-rein-link between us or just the force that expression hit me with, I don’t know. It was still a smile. But it was the smile of a person who is trying to smile despite their heart being broken. They took a breath.
“The keys,” they said, “won’t work. Pilots are… hard to find, but ultimately expendable; they have a million contingencies to replace each of us. But.” They looked at the files floating in front of them. “The ARMORs, they are not. Apparently… if one is gone, well, that’s it. They haven’t built them. They found them. And the hangar on the station will open; the protocols will choose letting a mutinous pilot in with an ARMOR that can still be preserved, over losing it.”
“And uninhabited means no security, no?”, said Tana. “We get to…”
“It’s ours, if we fly there.”
I looked down at the empty MRE bag, groggy. “I never flew all the way to space.”
I remember taking a swig of water, and then being really, really tired all of a sudden. Or maybe I was already tired and it had caught up with me.
A noise woke me up. I was with my head propped up on Tana’s crossed legs, and she had fallen asleep too, hunching forward, her mouth open, breathing softly. Her lips were so close to—
“Up everyone, up, something’s not right,” said the Hand, and I looked at them. They had a short knife out, looking back and forth. Tana woke up with a start, and perhaps that made the Temple soldiers that were ambushing us panic, because their attack started in earnest.
“To your ARMORs, now, now, now!”, the Hand yelled. I heard hissing: tranq darts, narrowly missing. I stumbled on my feet, feeling only marginally better than I was before I passed out, and I tried really, really hard to get to GODFORM, only for… well, me to catch myself in my ARMOR hand, gently depositing my smaller body into the cockpit. I was almost inside when I heard a noise as if something had just punched a wall of gelatine, and I saw that Alhambra’s ARMOR was kneeling now, scream-vibrations outside the range of human hearing, but definitely inside mine, the thrum harpoon jutting from its side, Alhambra scrambling to back around, follow Tana to her ARMOR to stow a ride in her cockpit.
The Hand was already laying down cover fire from their barrage pack. We weren’t getting new ammo; what we had was it, and to see the best tactician in our unit resort to it… Things weren’t looking good. I finished enabling up the net patch link only to hear a cacophony of voices from the other cockpits.
“… strapped in.” “We’re in— oof—” “Sorry, it’s tight in here.” “Where now?”, asked Sa-keni.
Me and the Hand, in unison, yelled the same word:
And we all started ascending.
And I felt so fain—
— 3,930 TICKS TO ENDPOINT — DECEMBER 20TB —
I floated toward her, and she floated toward me. I hadn’t had yet time to realize that she was singing to me, our tidal forces locked in an orbit of her choice, pulling us both somewhere that veered more toward solidity. I landed gently. She didn’t.
After that grace and beauty, what I was looking at was just… a tragedy. I recognized that power, a dark shimmering inside the non-Euclidean flesh that was growing in and outside her now. Her vehicle/body was now one with her core/human, and slowly losing both forms to a grotesque median. Still, she pulled at my reins, desperate to hold onto anything. She whispered:
The others too. They landed somewhat more gracefully and immediately a couple of them just… knelt, confused, tired.
I recognized the essence of my GOD coursing in them. ITS lifeblood, ITS GODHOOD, devouring them from the inside even as it made new gods.
I had only barely started moving again. I lifted a part of my self, wisp of cloud, to hold her shoulder gently, and…
“Such a terrible way to lose a daughter, isn’t it?”, said Tkan inside my flashback.
I recoiled. I— Hera— GODFORM— inside this… “What the heck is going on—”
Something was not correct. I was still in the non-Euclidean space of the flashback, and I was still experiencing LUMBERING CLOUD’s memories. But I was also there, somehow. And I was also fighting back in actual reality; if I put an effort in, I could start forcing to process my real senses, maneuver my ARMOR, actually fight, but it was a struggle to keep my ability to perceive that while this other reality overlaid onto me, just as vivid and present.
Tkan walked on the crystalline floor, getting close to the growing Form Subtle and Fine as her image was being dragged, a convulsion and shake at a time, into full GODHOOD. “A sacrifice I had to make. So little of her remains now, even in my memory; ascending is, apparently, retroactive.”
“Wait, she was your—”
— 20 TICKS TO ENDPOINT — APRIL 20XA —
My attention was thrust back to my bodies, dodging fire from the ground units just barely.
“Hera, what's up?”, I heard from the Hand. (Had they just called me by my name?) “I’m getting weird reads.” It was Alhambra’s voice on the same channel. I wanted to speak, but it was all I could do just to fire barrage pack rounds into the infantry— “Someone is hacking into their net patch fro—”
— 3,929 TICKS TO ENDPOINT — DECEMBER 20TB —
I was back into the flashback. The gods were being born a few feet from me. I was confused, kneeling on what felt like ground, waves of nausea through me.
“I made net patches. The tech.” Tkan said. He was unpleasantly close, and I could feel his breath on me, but moving away — moving at all — felt awfully contradictory, as if neither of the sets of sensations, the flashback or me outside desperately trying to survive, were the correct one. He got even closer, threateningly. “And goodness knows I have no idea how people work, in the end. But I know how gods work.” He tapped the side of my head, where the patch was, and I flinched, but in the real world, not in the flashback. More nausea, more…
— 20 TICKS TO ENDPOINT — APRIL 20XA —
I held to my controls really, really hard as I dived, landing with the full weight of weirded marble onto mobile artillery. The explosion didn’t even scratch me, but it threw me off-balance for a critical moment. I moved backwards and remained floating on top of a lot of very startled infantry units who were starting to run out of bullets.
“Are you down there?”, I heard Sa-keni. “Yeah? Yeah, I think,” I replied. Processing what was happening before me was taking precious moments as I had to carefully avoid thinking about—
— 3,928 TICKS TO ENDPOINT — DECEMBER 20TB —
not even void, for here entities are space and time and celestial objects and air and everything else, a place made of us and for us—
— 20 TICKS TO ENDPOINT — APRIL 20XA —
— the flashback that was being forced onto me.
“Did you say I— I’m being, hacked,” I managed to say as I started gaining altitude. The radar beeped and only then I noticed shuttle fighters on the way.
“Get out of their range and I can start figuring out how they’re doing it,” said Alhambra over the link, and then they pushed, my Liege? They are pulling at something inside you I cannot help with—
fucking—, I reflexively pushed back. Can I ask you two to—
Yes, my Liege, I felt in unison.
“Sa-keni, cover me. Alhambra, keep trying to get this out of my head.” I gritted my teeth. Both over the link and pushed, I felt their answers: “Yes, My liege.” “Your will be done, My liege.”
“Who made you commander, huh?”, said the Hand.
“Not now,” It came out before I could think; I held the ‘you prick’ in at the last second. “Ugh. I. I’m sorry. But. I’m like this. They’re like this. We’re faster like this. And. And I think this is the kind of situation we can only get out if you,” and I took a breath, “for fucking once, have some faith in me.”
The silence was heavy, and I thought I heard the Hand trying to respond, but we were interrupted by the first wave of the shuttle fighters opening fire. We were going as fast as we could but it would take several minutes to reach the edge of—
— 3,922 TICKS TO ENDPOINT — DECEMBER 20TB —
I was back inside the flashback, just in my Hera body. I felt as if I were in freefall, not constrained, but still nauseous, floating in an empty space with no way to push me toward any particular direction. I couldn’t see Tkan around me; the panorama had changed. We were in a featureless place, earlier, and I couldn’t make out the surroundings. But here, it was dark, pitch black, except for one giant thing, hanging in front of me, something awe-striking and gorgeous and horrifying.
IT was an entity the likes of which I had never seen before, except dimly just earlier. But I knew what IT was, without a doubt.
IT was GOD.
A round object, not unlike a planet; IT felt like IT had a definite size, the size Jupiter would occupy in your mind — yet fractally vast, as if the closer you moved to IT the more infinite IT was ready to become. It was entirely made of technology that was geology and biology at the same time: I could make out valleys of gears and fluids, mountainous 3D circuitboards, pumping heartlakes, wells and ravines so deep I could not see the bottom. Entities generally lacked recognizable anatomy, except for the core: this one, IT was an entity that was built to have one, or perhaps ONE that had built one for ITSELF. Entities are usually simple, made, or evolved, for specific tasks. GOD felt like IT was made to be everything IT could be, ready for anything that could ever be.
Everything on and within IT glowed a sickening yellow, almost blinding. I could feel ITS radiance extending in unseen ways all around IT, ITS tendrils reaching everywhere.
IT was also very dead.
No, not dead; death as a word feels final and specific, and I don't think IT could forever-die if IT didn't want to. No, IT was broken; and sprays and geysers of rock and metal scrap marked the place where IT had been struck, parts and liquids and sparkles of sickening gold thrown so far to be in orbit around IT, the radiance around ITS WOUND turning to metal-gray and pitch black.
“Why!!! Why are you doing this, you fucking asshole,” I yelled into the void, not sure if to GOD or to Tkan or to fucking life in general. “Why—”
— 20 TICKS TO ENDPOINT — APRIL 20XA —
“— air support is coming!”
The pings on the radar managed to pull my attention out of the flashback. I looked up, at the faint trails left by the Hand and Tana’s ARMORs as they climbed further.
I was pissed.
The shuttle fighters were trying to split — some heading for us, missiles already fired, others heading upwards to the other.
My lance? I pushed.
my Liege, replied Sa-keni.
Go high. Intercept.
A nod. I felt GODFORM responding to my wishes, reshaping my hands until they were just blades, sharp enough to be just a few atoms thin at the edge. I pushed forward, ran toward the first volley of missiles and just sliced them; I found that their midair explosion barely even fazed the ARMOR, and emerged from the debris at top speed, ramming the first jet, slicing a second and pushing it to collide midair with a third, then jumping straight onto a fourth, the sheer speed crushing its engines. It exploded, the pilot barely ejected as I jumped away to float up.
Sa-keni had taken the squadron that had flown up and was waving their Staff, phasing it out into non-Euclidean parallel space only for it to reenter regular space explosively inside their engines. They were banging down another plane, using it to surf down closer to me. Jump, I ordered, and as their muscles and ARMOR responded to my wishes, I took the plane by a wing and threw it, like a hammer throw at the Olympics, toward the incoming wave. The explosion took a couple more out; me and Sa-keni floated in mid-air, back to back. More shuttle fighters has dodged my attack, still firing toward us.
“More coming this way,” said Sa-keni looking toward my six.
“They're separating us.” The other two were distant already above us.
“Let me,” said Sa-keni. I could feel their smile widen through our entity-thought-language channel. And then they raised the Staff, and swung.
The shockwave was massive. The fighters tried to scramble, but as they were touched their component parts started phasing at random, in and out of non-Euclidean space, changing density and shape and cohesion as they became partly immaterial. Some crashed into each other; others veered past us; others still had their ordnance explode suddenly. It was chaos. We looked for just a moment, then immediately started flying back up as fast as we possibly could.
“Hera?” It was Alhambra over the patch com. We tightened our trajectories to rejoin them. “I think I know what's happening with the hacking? He is using your own—”
— 7,923 TICKS TO ENDPOINT — SEPTEMBER 20S1 —
I was floating down one of the wells on the surface of GOD ITSELF. Fluids fell all around me, bright yellow like radioactive lava flows; the well was hundreds of feet wide, and I was dead center in it, not in freefall but in a controlled descent at constant speed with no way to change my trajectory. I floated into darker and darker depths, until the fluids were the only source of light, and it was only when everything else was pitch black that my body was deposited rather brusquely, kneeling down, onto a plate of what felt like metal and stone, extending from one end of a narrow bridge to a dark corridor in front of me; the liquid was flowing onto the walls around us and into fissures in the ground, as if it had gotten more and more gelatinous and dense the longer the fall.
I couldn't move. My limbs were heavy, as if something had drained them of all energy. It took immense concentration to turn my head up at Tkan, who was there, right in front of me, in this space that was not quite a dream, but still more than a memory.
He was just smirking.
“You,” I said. “I get it. You're trying to trap me inside my own head. You're using my own power against me.”
“As I said, I know how gods work, little one. You'll stay here and stop interfering while you are retrieved.”
“Ah. Well,” and I felt my arm finally move, after pushing it with all the effort I could spare, “you see, I don't think so, you bastard.” And with horror he stepped back as I grabbed his immaculate Temple uniform at chest height. And as I touched him, I felt a familiar buzz, the same one I felt touching an entity; he was still mostly human, but just like me, like Alhambra, he had been pulled apart and put back together by the touch of an entity. “Because I have never been here,” I continued through gritted teeth, pulling myself up as I pulled him down with the weight of my unmovable body, “and LUMBERING CLOUD has seen GOD, but has never been inside IT. This is from neither of our memories. This is from yours.”
“What are you doing, you brat— AH!” My other arm had turned into tendrils, much like the ones of the entity that had interrogated Superintendent Rachman. They slithered into him, slicing into his image, ready to extract information from him.
Through gritted teeth, I hissed, almost level with him: “You're making me go me in circles right from your net patch, aren't you? But our connection is two-way; I'm looking inside your head. And we’re in a memory of the insides of GOD because you were here at some point. And I'm sick and fucking tired to be the last one to know anything. To be a pawn in this fucking silly game. You never talked of this. You're hiding something. And you. Will. Show. Me. What.”
He grunted, yelling for the pain and the effort to not fall to the ground. “N— Nnng—”
I pulled him closer and screamed to his face:
SHOW. ME. NOW.
And his eyes rolled back into his head. And behind me, lights slowly flickered to life in the corridor. A shadow was limping through it, escaping further into the core of the structure. It stopped for a moment and in the light, I saw a man, his elegant attire in tatters, eyes sunken and bloodshot, a long and unkempt beard, the features unmistakable: this was Tkan, but so, so much younger, and also clearly at the edge, barely able to stand or walk upright, skirting around with manic energy. He disappeared behind a bend in the corridor; I dropped present-day Tkan on the floor, where he lay unconscious, and, finally able to move the rest of me, followed inside.
I almost lost my way several times, but even as young Tkan disappeared ahead, I trusted the memory to bring me where I needed to be. The corridor wasn't made for a human to traverse; it was a tall entryway for a while, and then it became a smaller and smaller alley, a thin clear path between flexible pumping pipes that stretched like arteries along the walls, walls that were covered in masses of connected cabling spreading at random all over. The passage was more and more obstructed by the sprawl of parts, to the point I didn't see the spot where the floor suddenly wasn't there; and I ended up falling forward and down some way into a slope. I managed to get back up on my feet in the extremely narrow passage — barely larger than me — and navigated it until it suddenly opened into an enormous cave, its floor filled with cables and vein-pumps and rivulets of fluid, all going from the edges straight ahead to the very center of the room, where a spherical structure of what appeared to be metal and glass, tens of feet tall, lied dark and dormant before me. Young Tkan was in front of it, kneeling, still, likely as transfixed by its sight as I was.
All the non-Euclidean entities we ever encountered shared a single anatomical characteristic: spherical cores. They may have been of different sizes and apparent materials, but all of them possessed one, the housing of their cognition and self, usually somewhere in the center of their physical extent. I would've expected here, in what seemed to be the cavernous middle of the insides of GOD ITSELF, to find ITS core; but the structure in front of me wasn't grown the same way cores were: just like LUMBERING CLOUD remembered, it was made, built by… someone or something much taller than any human. Even worse: I could see inside it and I recognized several details — the side controls, the restraints, the little veins of non-Euclidean material woven within them so that if someone were to bind correctly, they could be connected directly to the rest of the apparatus.
Of the vehicle.
You see, GOD didn't have a core.
IT had a cockpit. Shaped just like an ARMOR’s.
— 20 TICKS TO ENDPOINT — APRIL 20XA —
I pulled all the stops to match the speed of the others. The cockpit showed a beeping rendezvous alert, just shy of ten thousand feet above us.
“So close,” said Tana over the com. I looked down, looked at the Earth we were abandoning; at the clouds and the land and the sea; and the wave of emotion was so tight I almost lost it. A tear came out. I refocused. Up, up, up.
The voice of the Hand interrupted the moment. “Do you see clear too?”
“I’m not sure that… wait.” I glanced at the video from Tana’s cockpit; Alhambra was looking closely at a couple floating screens. “The— I think the medium-range is jammed.”
“Optical, everyone, now. Do you—”
I spotted the dark dot on the screen. “There! Incoming!”
I wish— can’t they just—
I looked at the source of that — Sa-keni, just beside me in the formation — and my heart sank. I took a deep breath, and slowed when I reached the others. “What do they have?”
Tana replied: “Harpoon suborbitals. I see two or three servo catapults? And if those possible blips are shuttle fighters, it’s more than twice the first wave— what now?” An alarm was blaring, and it took a second to figure out it wasn’t from my cockpit; it was over patch com from the Hand’s. “Uh? Everyone? Something is—” The screen read ‘DANGER: SYNC DROPPING UNDER THRESHOLD — 30% AND COUNTING,’ and a glance at the shine of the Hand’s ARMOR gave me a sudden, panicked chill: their ARMOR was melting, losing its human form, the non-Eu matter evaporating slowly into nothingness.
“What—” “Is it okay—” “— quick, see if you can” “— no! No, no, no, no, no, NO!”, said the Hand, first clearly, then grunting, then screaming, a bloodcurdling sound that will not leave my memory or my nights, sometimes. ARMORs are anchored by the power of the Forms, and the power of the Hand’s god was…
Gone. Not retracted, just… gone.
And as that sync ratio dropped further — ‘10% AND COUNTING’ — as the Hand continued grunting and screaming and pulling at the controls — the melting slowed, almost stilled, the entirety of the inhuman portions of the ARMOR now held together just by the Hand’s obstinate will. It was then that all the proximity alerts went off as the catapults had sent the servos our way, pods opening to reveal the smaller, agile suborbital robot suits swarming us.
The Hand summoned the Sword and the Axe and launched themself into the invaders’ swarm. They were just three or four feet tall, which made them too small to hit accurately without locking, and yet every single one of the Hand’s swings found their mark, slicing and disabling and pushing away. Support them!, I pushed to Sa-keni, and I flew into the second wave of fighters and servos as well, slicing with my hands. I felt grappling hooks shot from the servos try to find purchase on GODFORM, and I pulled the few who did in by their ropes, launched them back at the shuttle fighters. A missile hit me, making me veer onto the course of a third wave of servos who tried to immobilize my hands — but most of their hooks found the Shield of Tana’s ARMOR, bouncing harmlessly away. “We got you!”, she said as Alhambra saluted in the video feed. “Oh, shit, behind you—”
I turned and the bomber was just above me, the cannons aimed at my ARMOR body. But I knew. I knew that being DEMIGOD made me…
I was not going to lose.
I was not going to die.
And, knowing that, I ran into the beam of the cannon as it charged up.
Protagonist roll: ⚃ — the protagonist melded with their ARMOR.
ARMOR roll: ⚄ — the ARMOR learned a new, ultimate ability.
I felt the cannon as it fired, just like I felt everything that was happening within me.
It will never stop feeling weird, I think?, the way that my bodies are just impressions of my full self. I liked my regular Hera-body enough to keep it. It’s mostly me in here. But, as attached as I am to my old shape, the truth is that my bodies are just housing, and flexible, endlessly remade housing at that. Just like the entities, I could be as much of a place, a moving biome, as I was a tangible thing. I claimed the space around me, stretching, expanding like the lichen, like PRINCIPLE OF SUFFOCATION’s crystal water, flooding space and becoming space myself, space turned marble-white with streaks of black lightning, my bodies gone, the laws of physics at my feet to be remade and rebound and reset.
I felt the cannon as it fired within me and I absorbed its energy and spat it back at it.
At the other cannons on the bomber.
At the shuttle fighters that had been caught in my extent.
And felt them all scramble inside me, too.
Most of the servos ran as soon as I expanded, some of them even making it out of me; I ejected the rest forcefully. And then, I retracted, just moments before my impressions of my self and my ARMOR could start fading, and within a minute I was back to being two bodies and a cockpit and a barrage pack almost out of ammo again. And when I took a breath into the cockpit and opened my Hera-body’s eyes, everything looked clean on the radar—
And then I heard it again, a sound like someone hitting a wall of gelatine with a wrecking ball.
I looked behind me. Tana had been hit with a thrum harpoon, her ARMOR moving erratically, her Shield decomposing into thin air. I turned on the net patch again only to hear: “—MAYDAY, MAYDAY, WE ARE COMPROMISED— Alhambra, what are you— ALHAMBRA! They’re having some kind of seizure—” and then their comms went unceremoniously down as the transport drones swarmed and started pushing the ARMOR back into Earth’s gravity well. I swung at the harpoon railgun ship, angry and powerless; it broke their second shot, which was still something.
I looked up. We had a few precious moments. And there, so close I could see it, so close I had to stop myself from raising an arm to try and touch that image, was the Orbital. On the medium range radar I could see the blip of Tana’s ARMOR being pushed back down at terminal velocity. I had to—
Sa-keni was beside me. Their ARMOR was holding up the Hand’s, whose breathing was pained, moaning. I pulled up their vitals over comm, and they were flashing yellow.
I took a deep breath.
I pushed what I wanted to do. Why I wanted to do it.
I heard them sob, loudly. A sound they could not stop over the patch. With the one free hand of their ARMOR, they held the head of mine close, touching my cheek, forehead to forehead.
Go, My liege, they pushed.
Take care of the Hand, I ordered.
Take care of You, they replied.
I took another deep breath, and let gravity catch me, and started diving down after my unit-mates.
I would get them back. I would get them back.
I was like a missile, quickly reaching terminal velocity. I was allowing gravity to affect me, which meant that I was also getting the full brunt of atmospheric drag on re-entry; I could feel the ARMOR regenerating ablative areas almost as fast as they were getting stripped off—
— 7,881 TICKS TO ENDPOINT — SEPTEMBER 20S1 —
Tkan screams as he is put back together piece after piece after piece, aware as his body is rebuilt even as he is almost passing out. An inescapable commandment: GOD cannot directly let any energy source go to waste, and as a human, he is one. GOD can harm him; GOD can find him and stop him from trying to fiddle with ITS interiors; GOD can absolutely keep him trapped here if IT wants to, hostage of ITS unknowable designs. But GOD cannot kill him and keep him dead and every time he is rebuilt, pieces of knowledge seep into him
— 20 TICKS TO ENDPOINT — APRIL 20XA —
—the connection and the flashbacks were restarting, though not as powerful, undirected. Passing shuttle fighters tried to intercept me and I just crashed through them, my trajectory not even shifting—
— 121 TICKS TO ENDPOINT — AUGUST 20YZ —
LUMBERING CLOUD could remember when the Form Subtle and Fine held its reins and tried to change its programming. GOD’s orders were absolute, but in her coursed the power of GODHOOD, and she could switch a few things. Instead of harming humans, perhaps she could set things up so it would warn them
— 20 TICKS TO ENDPOINT — APRIL 20XA —
—I saw the drones on optical, now, beelining for a trajectory that would certainly bring the ARMOR back to the Tower. On the long-range, I could see that Alhambra’s ARMOR was also on the way there from the ambush site— and, also, that the ground beside the tower was swelling, that the repair scaffolds were falling into new fissures in the ground, that the top of the dome was opening into—
— 7,252 TICKS TO ENDPOINT — PROBABLY STILL SEPTEMBER 20S1 —
Tkan hadn’t needed to eat or sleep; time passed differently, if it did, in non-Euclidean space, even though most of GOD had pockets of space-time he could survive in. But cerebral function still requires breaks, and he had taken none. He was manic, and barely registered the fact that his plan to produce a controlled explosion deep enough into the surface of GOD would create a gravity well that would swing his body back into the event horizon, out of here
— 20 TICKS TO ENDPOINT — APRIL 20XA —
—The altimeter’s numbers were dropping too fast to keep track of. I adjusted the trajectory to enter the very top of the Tower, where I could clearly see the drones reaching, then— dropping? the ARMORs, just letting them go into the top. As I approached, the cockpit started blaring: “CAUTION: EVACUATION IMPERATIVE — DESCENT CHAMBER PROTOCOL IS IN PROGRESS.” But I had no intention of moving out. The streets didn’t look like anyone had evac'd anyway — a literal riot was in progress around Temple Tower, people with improvised weapons and signs against Temple security. I couldn’t stop to look; I entered the Tower dome and just headed down, down into the middle — a cylinder inside the Tower had shifted so that it was a single drop all the way from there to the bottom of the basement.
I saw the ARMORs there, still falling, being shifted in midair by rail setups that changed their trajectory without slowing them down. And I saw a capsule, in which I could feel—
a terrible, crooked smile
—Tkan via the flashback link. But they were faster than I could be, and were swallowed by the darkness in the basement as they dropped.
I tried to match their speed. The floors flashed by around me, the hangars, the living quarters, the prayer floors, all broken by the floor retracting in the middle. The ground floor passed me and then it was just the darkness of the basement, which looked to be just as incredibly tall as the over-ground portion of the Tower itself.
But the floors in the basement weren’t made for people to live in. It was layer after layer after layer of resonators, of oscillation rings, of driver magnets pushing my trajectory in the exact middle. It was the shimmering of some sort of border effect on the event horizon at the very end, coming fast at me. Mere seconds to impact.
And I held the controls tight and I dived inside it at full speed.
END OF ASCEND, DESCEND, PART 1:
THIS HEAVEN I CANNOT REACH.
Episode roll: (For the mid-season finale, there is no episode roll. The next episode is Episode 13.)
IN THE NEXT EPISODE OF PLOT:
(shot: the cockpit inside GOD, from a slightly different angle from what Hera had seen. This one is dead front, towering over us. The scene zooms onto the cockpit, slowly, until lights turn on inside it too, and something blinding fills it—)
(black. Over black:)
Hera (alone): “All my life, my choices were made for me. But now, I know what I want. I want the ones close to me to be safe. On the next episode of PLOT: THIRTEEN: ASCEND, DESCEND, PART 2. (A beat.) Sometimes victory is just getting all together to the next day, one day at a time.”