— 24 TICKS TO ENDPOINT — MARCH 20XA —
In our last night in the Tower, I had a dream:
It was pitch dark, yet I could see. It was me, and it was me in my ARMOR, but I’m not sure that made a difference. It looked like me. It walked like me. I looked at my hands and they were my hands; there was no boundary or difference between it and me.
And Sa-keni was there too. And: the moment I saw them, I knew instantly this was a dream. I knew instantly, also, that Sa-keni was real, and was dreaming this dream with me. We looked at each other. (They were also in their ARMOR, in the same way: the way that things are true in dreams but may not matter at all.)
They looked down at their hands made of black specked opal, somehow distracted, entranced. And they suddenly looked so small. I always felt so inadequate around everyone in Blasphemy Unit. But not right now. They were… there was. Not a hierarchy. But a mechanism. Of which I was a piece. Higher. Of which they were a piece. Lower. And we fit in it somehow. If only we.
And I looked at my hands and they were mine and they were GODFORM’s, slowly turning, slowly shifting, and I said: No! and I held my guts and I bent down as every fiber of my body sang MY glory, wanted to be ME, to be IT
This seemed to shake Sa-keni from their stupor. Hera? What are you—
Hera? Are you— are you G—
I held just enough to say, I don't know what is this—
And then I was bent in half, holding myself, and I was at eye level with them (when had I gotten taller?), and looked up and made eye contact and all I could do was hold that gaze and say, in the same hungry voice I felt every time I called upon DEMIGOD:
(but stronger, but deeper.)
And they knelt.
And then I woke up. It was warm, unbearably, and I was breathing hard, heart beating hard. And I started doing my breathing exercises to get the beats per minute down. Get those beats per minute down. It’s going to be fi—
Someone knocked at the door. I jumped, then slowly moved to open it.
It was Sa-keni, as shaken as I was.
Their arms shone with specks of color in the dark, shifting as their ragged breathing—
They looked down, then to the side, as they were trying to find the words. I was stuck, too. Then they just left without saying a word.
The convoy marched in the rising heat. The protestors, mostly natives to the city as opposed to the Temple-relocated refugees, pushed and screamed from both sides of the convoy cordon as the transports slowly moved out of city centre proper and off to the long march to East Bastions Outpost, toward the sea. I looked at them from the armored vehicle’s window; every time stuff like this happened, someone would make a comment to the effect of how we were fighting for their own good, too, or that this too would pass once we would retake Europe and the Americas and resettle. Once the war was over. Today, though, everyone was silent.
Blasphemy Unit was tucked into the rear seats of the transport, dressed in summer fitness uniform; the vehicle could’ve easily moved ten or so more people, but this one was reserved for the pilots. Beyond us, it was just two others: the Inner Temple Guard officer who was driving the vehicle (“Superintendent Anthony Rachman”, said the name tag), and Tkan Karoj, Protector of the Mysteries yada yada, who had been briefing us for the last ten minutes or so:
“… while Tower Base is being rebuilt and containment protocols reevaluated, we are going to move most active priority assets to East Bastions Outpost, including the entirety of the ARMOR program. For what we foresee will be the first seven days, Temple Command will be at reduced readiness; until we can reestablish Command Station and full scan capabilities, Blasphemy Unit will be placed into part-time maintenance and resynchronization duties. You will otherwise be on partial leave for the time being. I expect you to maintain readiness…”
Only the Hand was really listening. Tana was beside me, aisle-side, sneaking looks out the window, clearly more interested in the commotion outside; Sa-keni had been looking down, mostly, never making contact with Alhambra, their seat mate, who seemed content into just gazing forward through the windshield. I was very anxious, thoughts swirling, distracted.
“… you will report to Superintendent Rachman for the duration of the trip. I will now take questions, pilots. Anyone?”
The Hand asked something about when daily schedules would be available and received a noncommittal response. No one else added anything. We fell in a silence, afterwards, that no one dared break.
“Gosh, this is—,” said Tana, “I haven’t seen the sea in so long…”
“Me either,” I added.
The ARMOR program was too important to the war effort, the pilots almost irreplaceable; which is why Temple Command treated as if we were precious treasure with the pesky tendency to have free will, both champions and prisoners. That’s why, when we had time off, Superintendent Rachman had us driven to a heavily guarded portion of coast that had been reserved for Blasphemy Unit recreational use only, a beach between two rocky ridges. But, on some level, all of us enjoyed it. We were on leave, and in costume, and enjoying the last heat of the season in the bright sun, away from responsibility for the first time in a long, long while.
(As free as a grain of sand, to be on the beach for as long as the wind allows, thrown all together without distinction, yet some of us forever apart; held in place only by gravity and our own inaction; only to then be swept away when as the wind changes course.)
“Come on, Hera,” yelled Tana as she walked into the water, “the water’s amazing here! Come have a swim!”
“I’ll be there in a minute,” I said, looking at the anti-entity barrier towers on the horizon. It was my little game; I had spent the last half-hour or so trying to spot where Temple security was hiding in the rocky outcroppings that framed the beach, too. And I was… I was distracted. Or trying to distract myself, I realized.
Alhambra ran past me. “Slowpokes miss out on the fun~”, they said. "Come on, Tana, let's show them how it's done!” And from their running start, they dived into the sea with a loud splash. (“I'm coming!”, said Tana, running after them. It all so was playful, just like Alhambra had been before this whole mess started, and somewhere deep inside I was happy that they seemed to be back to their usual self, at least a little bit. I looked at Tana's curves, at her presence and her joy. And at Alhambra's body, slender and toned and muscular, their red hair, their demeanor, their smile; and, also, how their skin now glinted ruby-red in the sunlight, and with that I felt an uncanny feeling in the pit of my stomach that I couldn't shake away.)
As I turned, the Hand was glaring at me. They looked at me for a long, uncomfortable moment, then turned to yell at Tana and Alhambra something about always being ready for war, and went back to their martial arts training. I… I was unsettled by that look. I had spent most of my time in Blasphemy Unit being pointedly ignored by most of them —that my senior deigned to look at me felt weirdly like some sort of… progress. But I so wished that their moves didn’t feel to me like asshole moves.
In the commotion, I only got glances of Sa-keni, sitting on a towel in the shadow of a beach umbrella. A little bit of light filtered through, and the specks of color in their arms projected trembling patterns on the ground.
I sighed, took my top off, and slowly entered the water.
After that it was, for once, an okay morning.
When the sun started to set, Sa-keni sneaked from below the beach umbrella, walking on the coast to sit on a large, lone rock on the side of the inlet; they sat, leaning back, their legs dangling down in the water. I saw them moving from afar; I slowly made my way to them, asked, “Hey, um. Can, can we?”, and approached when they nodded.
I leaned, my chin on my arms on a rock spur beside them, body still in the water, resting. I didn’t know what to say. They broke the ice:
“How are you?”
I hesitated. “… overwhelmed. Um. You?”
“I’m. I’m okay, I think.” They straightened up, looked at their hands. Their right hand still looked chipped. “I. Want to hear me rant a bit?”, they asked.
“It’s been dangerous, this whole thing, so far. I knew that. And I know I should care. Care about faith in humanity. And I do care about faith, a whole bunch. About the war. And I was — it never felt like I was good enough despite how much I cared, you know?”
“You? You train harder than all of us.”
“Save the Hand.” They smiled.
I smiled back. “Well, the Hand is really weird.”
“I am too, though, am I not? How,” they sighed, “well, people pick up on it. I—” They sighed. “Can I be honest?”
“Maybe you don’t know, Hera, No— not that it’s true— at least: the way everyone treated you felt sincere, in how much they wanted you around. Me? I was kept on that fine edge for so long, not in, not out, and I was trying, trying to relate to what they relate to. Because I care, I care a lot. I care a lot about us. I care about you. I care about the rest of Blasphemy Unit. I care about making it out alive, my family making it out alive, the people who remain.” They sighed again. “But I don’t think I ever truly cared about being human, and I don’t know I should keep trying to. I never felt like I measured up to what everyone feels to be, what I was told I was supposed to be, and now,” and they looked at their hands, “I feel like… like I lost that chance to, for good. But also, maybe, maybe, I feel like this fits me… better.”
They paused. “I liked how I felt in the dream, you know? A lot.” They shot me a look and a weird smile. “But I don’t know about you.”
I felt myself blushing, sudden. “H-hey!”
They pushed my side with their feet, playfully. “Come on, spill the beans.”
“I— um. I. See, it. It felt very good, yeah. Very… right…”
They looked at me. “But?”
“But. But it was… it was me in the dream. But it was also DEMIGOD. And. And I don’t think I had a choice about being DEMIGOD. And it’s all happening because of that. I. I worry I didn’t give you a choice, either.”
“Hey! Hey, no. I. I did get what you… pushed? It’s just: neither of us understood everything about what was going to happen. But. It was a split-second decision, but it was my decision, too.” They smiled. “I think it turned out okay. At least for me.”
“Oh. Okay.” I took a breath. “I just feel… I feel betrayed? So much is happening to me, and I didn’t choose any of it. My parents chose the Humanities for me. The war effort chose piloting for me. And now my goddess just chose to shuffle my insides around.” I buried my face in my arms, looking away. “I wish people would stop choosing for me.”
“What do you want, Hera?”
I looked at them.
“I. I don’t. I don’t know yet.”
They lifted their hand, offered it to me. I took it. It felt cold, as if glass could feel soft as well as smooth, tickling me with the familiar confusing set of sensations non-Euclidean matter gives you when you touch it. Suddenly, I knew things about them, just like I did when I touched the entities. I gasped.
I’m still on the side of humans. I still care, they said in entity-thought-language. But, yeah, no longer human. A being of true blasphemy. Not just a dark joke about ARMORs anymore.
We were quiet, a moment.
While you figure it out… while we figure it out, can I stay by your side?, they asked, then.
Yes, I replied.
They helped me pull up out of the water onto the rock. We sat beside, hand in hand, looking at the sun set.
The sea before us was swarming full of entities. The war had— they had conquered so much. (Almost everything. Almost.) And if we stopped to think about what places remained safe for humans to live in…
Well, I tried really hard not to.
Most coastal areas used long lines of thrum bastions, which resonated at specific frequencies onto layers of non-Euclidean material to produce a barrier effect against sea-dwelling entities. But they need to be powered, and maintained, and they were under constant attack by smart, coordinated adversaries. And today, our guard was down.
We didn’t notice one of those had fallen dark, that day, in the distance, even as it kept reporting operational.
We didn’t notice black tendrils slither toward the beach through that opening.
We didn’t notice Superintendent Rachman wasn’t with the security detail when we got back.
I was woken up in the middle of the night by voices. I pinged my net patch confusedly; the clock had just passed 2 am.
I moved, groggily. “Wh—,“ and then a familiar touch on my hand, a confusing polyphony of sensations for a split second until they retracted their hand. “Sa-keni?”
“Hey,” they whispered. I looked around. Everyone was in ceremonial garb, and they had an extra red, hooded robe in their hand.
“The Eye says you’re ready for the Mysteries. You get to be inducted in with us now.” They smiled. “The ceremony is in five minutes.”
I was— the Mysteries? I couldn’t— my initiation was so long ago, I had lost hope— I was so confused and so shaken. What could the Mysteries tell me that my goddess hadn’t? What was going on? A part of me feared some sort of foul play, but also, maybe finally they wanted me to—
I shook and steeled myself, sat on the side of the bed and quickly snuck the robe on.
We spent the procession quietly. The Temple was a mysteric cult, and induction was… I spent years preparing in the Humanities, the spiritual school, after my parents sent me there, after the aptitude test and saying yes to piloting and everything. I knew that most didn’t get to ascend; I knew the stories of people just… retiring, or getting dead-end chaplain jobs. And now— I don’t know why I didn't say no. I could’ve. It’s all voluntary. But.
All I wanted for so long was to know what I had been missing.
And. I wanted so bad to belong. I wanted the rest of the unit to look at me like… like a friend. Like someone who they could, could…
Talk to without feeling embarrassed? Treat as a peer?
I don’t know. I didn’t want to know in the moment. I knew I was getting closer and closer to the ritual chamber in the outpost’s chapel, in complete silence, just like the Mysteries say, not waking anyone, avoiding light, not uttering a word.
And then we entered the chapel, and the candles were on in the ritual circle, and the celebrant was there, hood over their face, standing before the dim light of the ritual semicircle at the of the room, furnished with cushioned seats, adorned by flickering candles, standing darkly before the statues of the Forms; and then
and then I felt like I stepped on something and
felt a weird unease. Something was off. Where were the witnesses? Why was the celebrant standing there, alone?
They didn't respond. frozen in fear, gaze locked not something behind the celebrant. I looked, too. There was another body there. I knew that face; it was the Hand’s spiritual advisor, the Eye of the Severe and Mysteric, the person who had called us here—
The Hand was frozen for a second, looking at the body of the only person left who was any close to them laying silent, prone in a pool of blood, then yelled,
and our training kicked in in time for the slivers of shadow to erupt from inside the celebrant’s robe, slicing them and the candles all around us and hitting the cushions on the ritual seats in a fiery eruption of wax and fabric. But we had scrambled, already; Tana and Alhambra across the room, me and the others on the other side, slightly closer to the only door.
“What the fuck is going on,” yelled Tana.
“An entity!”, said Alhambra quieter beside her. “Look.” They pointed at the floor. What I had stepped on were strands of shadows flowing on the ground, on the walls around us, slithering from a corner in door, from over in the corridor. I reached and touched and
they’re here now
the entity was called RECAST ALL MATTER TO PRESSING PURPOSE. “A trap!”, I yelled, and the Hand beside me nodded, and I saw that them staring into the void one moment, looking at the celebrant with bloodshot eyes the other. They only said: “Help me get the dagger,” and then they executed a perfect roll to land to the celebrant’s side and grab their robe to force them to turn.
I ran after them, trying to grab the knife out of its sheath on their belt — and only then I saw that the celebrant was not standing on the floor: the bundle of shadows on the floor pulled up, entering his body like sticks holding up a puppet, propping it up with the stilted grace of a human scarecrow, and as soon as I got close enough they tilted to have the body swing at me with uncoordinated limbs; I pulled the knife out just in time to be thrown on the wall behind me.
I winced. I dropped on the floor, knife lost.
I got myself up as quickly as I could through the pain. I started looking for the knife on the floor beside me; and then. I saw it; I picked it up, jumped away before another bundle of shadows could extend to pin and perforate me, jutting out from the side of the robed figure. I scrambled on my feet again and slid the knife gracelessly on the floor toward the Hand, and they rolled, picked it up and stabbed the body in the heart all in one swift fluid motion.
It quivered for only a second, then it angled itself unnaturally back and sprung again to strike the Hand, missing them barely as they dived away for cover. The motion had let the robe’s hood fall away from the face revealing the mangled, lifeless face of Superintendent Rachman. Even as his body was swung about, the dagger firmly planted into the body to no visible effect, we could hear his voice — raspy, disjointed — talk at staccato intervals. “their… tactics, there is, an advantage in… enclosed space…” and then “the chapel has… only one door… only entry or exit… possible space for an ambush…”
“He’s… being interrogated? The entity is getting information from him,” Sa-Keni said, their hand on the bundle of shadows on the floor, and I got a push from them: the clear image of a lemon being squeezed for the last few drops of juice. I recoiled.
It’s then that it turned — the body of Rachman turned to face me. And then it slithered my way, like a snake, quick and I assumed just as deadly. I didn’t know what to do— then felt Sa-keni beside me— and looked— they nodded— and I pushed them toward the snake, and they were already jumping toward it, or perhaps the push had made them jump, but either way they were in front of it, trying to stop it, trading blow after blow with the entity, cracking the bundles of shadow-blades with their bare hands. As the entity angled itself to strike again, I pushed and yelped and Sa-keni was already beside it, a crouch just barely avoiding the swinging of Rachman’s body again. The shadows tried to slither away, move more toward my direction, but Sa-keni planted themself right in front of it, between it and me, their arms crossed in front of them to repair them from the onslaught of bladelike shadows. “Run!”, they said, and I scuttled quickly toward the chapel door—
only to hear a gasp:
Sa-keni had apparently punched through Rachman’s body. The arm was stuck, and it had to have gone through the entity, which was now twitching and quivering and swinging the body about. Sa-keni was screaming, too: their face looked in pain. “Sa-keni!”
The Hand and Alhambra were running to help, but they were stopped by a second puppet-body, the body of the Eyes, which had to have been pulled up from the floor when no one was looking. It was talking: “g-grace is not for… the strong… the brats… are useless… kids… the brats… report to TENSOR… tell TENSOR… tell TENSOR… the brats… tell TENSOR…” The Hand recoiled, but Alhambra started giving the new corpse the same treatment Sa-keni did the other — trading blow for blow, crushing ephemeral slivers of slicing shadow before they could hit anyone who didn’t have their ruby skin.
I ran to Sa-keni, and pulled, and pulled — the arm was pinned by blades of shadow that were trying to keep it in place, maybe doing something to it? quick — pulled until it gave way and me and Sa-keni fell, them atop me, backwards. I stumbled best I could, and I was still getting up and trying to walk away from the pile of unlit candles when I yelled,
“Hey, you bastards! Is it me you want? Come and get me, you fuckers!”
and ran in the hallway.
As I looked behind, I saw that only the bundle of shadows holding Rachman followed me. And no sooner had I turned the corner that I felt the blades slicing my skin, my shoulders, my chest, and from then on, for the brief remainder of my existence, the pain was everything.
Protagonist roll: ⚃ — the protagonist melded with their ARMOR.
ARMOR roll: ⚁ — the ARMOR summoned a new weapon.
Would I have made the same choice again?
Would have I left humanity, I wonder, by my own hand, had I to do this over again with more time, more grace? Had I said no then, would something else have prompted it, inevitably?
Did what me and Sa-keni talked about pushed me to do it?
Would’ve I asked for it if I had known what was to come?
Fact is: I didn’t know what the future held, but I’ve since put two things into words that I think I already knew in the moment.
The first is that DEMIGOD would’ve protected me at any cost. And I intended to use that fact. I couldn’t be slain, or destroyed, or defeated, as long as DEMIGOD was within me and my ARMOR. And I wasn't above exploiting that fact.
The second is that I have a knack for picking the option most likely to help me survive. Unfortunately: me, not anyone else. But I knew that the alternatives were few, in that moment, and that had I not remade my body and left humanity behind, I would’ve had no more than a couple more minutes as a human before I turned into… the nothing that awaits us all.
So I did it. I forsook all that makes you you — on your side, always and still on your side, but forevermore Other — just like Sa-keni did, just like Alhambra was forced to do. No longer human like you. But perhaps, even now in these final hours, perhaps, I hope, human like this.
I really, really hope.
Because if I'm no longer… then the fears of the people I love are true now, if they weren't then.
Imagine if you will a loud noise; even as I’m dying, I can feel the votive beads on my wrist searing my skin, the connection of DEMIGOD starting up as I invoke on its power almost before though, as I pray:
make me like you. make me like Sa-keni. make me like Alhambra. make me survive.
over and over and over again, a tiny whisper on my lips.
Imagine that loud noise responding to these prayers. And then a long moment where both me and my captor are frozen in the hallway. And then the wall closest to the outside wall crumbles as the entity is thrown away, as I am pulled by it, as the arm of my ARMOR now almost fully turned into GODFORM — a walking altar of white marble whose deep black veins become subtle streaks of black vapor in the air — crashes in. Imagine it looking at me with eyes too alive to be just a machine that I ostensibly pilot. Imagine then it losing its shape to cover all of me like liquid marble and me screaming from the top of lungs that I may not have for long, a scream of pain and instinct and intellect reacting to the change until the air is gone—
It was me and I was my ARMOR. I looked like it. I walked like it. I felt it beside myself, and I felt my old body just — just a housing, moving itself separately without stopping being part of the whole — the pain all gone. There was no boundary or difference between me and it. I was DEMIGOD.
That part of my self, the part that used to be Hera’s body, was still stuck, impaled by blades of shadow. And so I started eating them. My form — GODFORM — was hungry: hungry for shape, for matter, for energy, for worship. As soon as I started, I felt them crumble inside me, and the entity shrieked and retreated, their ends severed, the body of Superintendent Rachman thrown every which way, almost ready to fall apart and separate limb from limb.
It was retreating.
And I said:
It wasn’t mine yet. It wouldn’t listen. I reached to use Sa-keni to—
I was Hera again. No; I was Hera, but I was Hera-as-DEMIGOD. Somehow, in that moment, the urge to not use other people stopped my action, stopped me from—
Yes? They were surprised. What—
Later. Can I use you to stop the entity retreating?
They nodded, and they were on it, running into the corridor, racing the tendrils of shadow until they found a suitable spot where they just landed on them, held them pinned to the floor, and they were slipping away when
Help, it’s going to—
I’m on it, said Alhambra,
and they picked up the bundle of shadow and held onto it even as it was shaking and convulsing like the snake it wasn't, trying to get these aggressors off its back.
It was then that I floated like my ARMOR does. Or, better: my body and my ARMOR happened to be two distinct portions of a single… entity, for lack of a better word. And the portion that used to be my body floated to the face of Superintendent Rachman and held it, and saw that my hand was living marble like GODFORM’s, that my hands were its hands, that the hand of my mech was also coming through the hole and picked up Rachman like a rag doll and brought it close to me and I held the dead body’s gaze and just uttered a single word:
and I felt the mind of the entity shatter and rearrange itself to be under my command, too.
And all movement ceased for a moment, and then the body and the bundle of shadows that composed the entity landed, motionless, to the ground.
And then Temple guard was filling the corridor and we noticed that the emergency lights were flashing an alert with a code I had never seen before.
And before I could say anything about how the situation was under control, blast doors closed, and panels on the floor slid open, revealing what looked like—
“Thrum resonators?”, said Alhambra. “Wait, we are—“
And then it was like being so close to a concert speaker that you can’t hear your thoughts, it felt like glitching all over several times over, like thought was overwritten and like glitching all over, and like several times over thoughts glitching glitching and thoughts and I felt. Being pulled away by the over guards and several and Temple bringing us away and glitching glitching glitching and over and overwritten and—
END OF EPISODE 9:
AND THEN THE WIND SWEPT THEM AWAY AGAIN.
Episode roll: ⚂ — the next episode is (episode 9 + 3): Episode 12.
IN THE NEXT EPISODE OF PLOT:
Tana: “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.
(shot: a campfire. The camera pulls out, very slowly. The wind howls, the flame almost extinguishing. As it pulls out, signs of battle can be seen around the campfire — the clearing it is in is devastated, trees torn, pieces of crashed shuttle fighters. A stronger gust of wind. The fire goes out, and the only light is the stars. One of them blinks.)
Tkan: “Such a terrible way to lose a daughter, isn’t it?”
All pilots together: “On the next episode of PLOT: the mid-season finale: TWELVE: ASCEND, DESCEND PART 1”
Hera: “I think… the only way forward, is to have faith in me.”
Sa-keni and Alhambra, together: “Yes, My liege.” “Your will be done, My liege.”