She stares out the window at the prototype in the Armour yard below her office tower, a pair of binocs in her hand. She's not the only one. It's been a long two years, and all over the Astir Materials Group compound, everyone from execs to interns is taking a minute to watch this particular milestone in person. Test Article One has been running off external power since eighteen months ago, when it was just a metal skeleton. Not today.
Last week, she and her techs finally supervised installation of the Core. Unusual type, crystalline, considered difficult to work with, but she's confident in AMG-7 TA1 and its future progeny. She's studied hand-built one-off Armours that used crystalline Cores, spent days poring over micrographs of the interfaces where dense, structure-rich pseudocrystal swarm deigned to soften and accommodate other materials. She understood them. Then she improved them. Made them repeatable. TA1's Core colonized its Armour in less than four hours.
This is what she does for AMG: the arcane, explained. The shipyard artisans of the Third and the rote ancient wisdom of Civis have nothing on her. TA1 is one Armour, but someday it will be hundreds. All hers, in a way. Not hers, in another way, but she pushes that thought down.
Across the field are two A18s, and it kills her that they had to rent Armours from FHI for this, but for better or worse, the damn Ranger is the Bloc standard. They could have run a mock combat against the similarly capable AMG-3 or -5, of which the company had plenty, but half the potential buyers wouldn't have known which the new design was. At least their Pilots are AMG, and she'll just have to keep hoping that their counter-espionage people did their job on the hardware.
Said mock opponents are already powered up and ready to go. They're loaded for a mock bloodbath: the standard A18 mounted tribarrels are hung with belts of safety orange paintballs, and one carries a short fabric-wrapped sword, dripping orange on the grass, while the other's right arm is a Meteor launcher, similarly full of weighted paint-soaked orange sponges simulating hullcutter grenades.
The test Pilot walks out on the field. She's told him which window she'll be watching from, and Blake knows full well where his new toys come from. He's wearing a tight pilot uniform in AMG corporate colors, orange and gold, and it shows everything. When he reaches TA1, he turns to her and raises his hand. She looks through the binocs to see the safety interlock key, which gleams in the afternoon sunlight. A light breeze whips out his long black hair.
Under her breath, too low for her headset to pick up, she mutters, "Don't break it, you handsome bastard."
TA1's cockpit seals. The silvery metal armor seemingly reflects bright lights that aren't there, and then it relaxes, and the seams and joints leak pulsing waves of blue-green light. There's a gasp from somewhere else in the hallway. Not from her: she's seen this before, on the assembly floor. Working as intended. She looks through the binocs again, though, just in case. Her Armour's still there and it's still the right shape, even if it's hard to pick out the exact lines.
TA1 casually hefts another fabric-wrapped Armour-scale sword from a rack on the ground in front of him, this one covered in fluorescent green. It splatters a line on the ground as Blake tests the balance, finding it to his liking. Over the radio, she hears, "TA1, good to go."
"Control, acknowledging. All personnel clear. TA1, E1, E2, field's yours. Begin."
TA1 raises its free hand, makes a beckoning gesture, and it's on.
As one, both of the A18s lift their left arms and fire opening barrages from their tribarrels. Standard opening move against an opponent armed with a sword. Blake expects this, jumps clear, TA1's cultured-ghostvine myofabric muscles performing exactly as they should.
She has to put the binocs down to follow. She can't keep up.
The jump sends it three times its height into the air. At the apogee, he engages thrusters and TA1 darts forward, its ballistic trajectory interrupted, and then slashes down with its blade before his target can compensate. Green marker paint obscures its cockpit. E1's pilot yelps. That's a kill.
TA1's down now, though. As it tries to regain footing, the remaining opponent fires another burst from its tribarrel at TA1's back. The blue-green light from the prototype intensifies. She looks closer through the binocs; it's gone hard to see again, but… yes, the burst went around it. Not a splash on the Armour itself. Good.
The A18 jumps back on its own airjet thrusters and brings the Meteor launcher to bear. Blake has TA1 almost on its feet in time to raise an arm to shield, which wouldn't do much against a hullcutter charge. Or at least it wouldn't have done much if it were another A18, or any of her previous efforts. But the simulated grenade hangs in the air just in front of TA1.
E2 fires another. And another. They join the first one, hovering. There's another flare of blue-green light. TA1 rises, and a jet of suddenly green paint explodes back at its mock opponent, spraying the A18 everywhere.
Now that's interesting. Not something she can explain, not anything she would have predicted, or anything she can do. Certainly not that smoothly, with no practice, her will in tandem with the will of a giant machine powered by a huge crystal from the sky. She'd like to try, though. Oh, how she'd like to try.
"Control. Good work, all. Okay, shut down, make 'em safe. We're gonna check the test article and hose everything off for the next run."
Excited chatter in the hallways. But for now, no celebrations for her; she needs to go back to work before she thinks too much.
In her office, she closes her eyes.
That night, a different sort of celebration. One of her techs has been convinced to loop security sensors in the hanger for an hour, and her own swarm-talk suffices to feed a plausible set of lies to any smaller watchers that AMG might query.
She lies possessively over Blake in TA1's open cockpit, after.
"Not going to tell me I did good out there?" he says. "Or in here?"
"Please," she replies. "You know it already. What's the point?"
"Different tonight, though. You."
"Oh?" She traces a sharp fingernail lightly over his bare chest. "How?"
"Other people… sometimes they get… like, if they can hold me tight enough, take me deep enough, maybe some of the Pilot will rub off, you know?"
If only some of the Pilot could rub off.
He's apologetic. For Blake, this is heavy conversational lifting.
"Just say it, Blake."
"Other times, before, it's like you're going over me like machinery, like you know what I do, but you want to watch me do it. Makes sense, yeah? But tonight. First time you've been like that. Groupie. Hungry."
The handsome bastard's right, damn him.
"Just thinking about what I don't have, I guess."
"It's a beautiful machine. Don't say that to just anyone. You should be proud."
"Hurts more this time, Blake."
"You said once or twice before, but you really can't? At all?"
She makes a sour face, remembers months of work… not wasted, exactly, but for sure AMG didn't register the effort for what it was, and most of the end users don't either.
"You tested the AMG-3."
"Oh, yeah, for sure. Fluid, good balance."
"What did you think of the assist system?"
"Hated the pilot assist. Had to turn it off. Before they had an off switch, put foil in my helmet so it couldn't read my mind. Thing kept second-guessing me."
"The 3's assist system is the closest I ever got. I sold it to my boss as a training feature. but really I put it in for me. Thought I knew how to compensate with extra sensors for the Core connection I can't feel. Then when I got the chance… Took about ten steps on the factory floor, one time. And then I fell down, hard, and couldn't get up again."
He winces. "I'm sorry. Can't imagine."
"You literally probably can't. It's in you. Whatever bullshit magic nano lets Armours work is in you. It always has been. You lucky fucker."
"Hey! Don't be mean."
"Fuck me again," she says. "It won't help. But I'm still… what you said. Hungry."
The hollow feeling doesn't get any better after another week of working on TA1, looking at it, knowing what it can do, but only for people who aren't her.
End of the week comes. She breaks one of the unspoken rules of AMG culture: there are several bars in the Armour complex, each staked out by its own subset of the employees. Friendly turf, tacitly off-limits to outsiders. Admin. Production. Artificers. Pilots.
She walks into the Pilot bar. More of a shed, really. Someone spray-painted an unreadable name above the door a long time ago and it's faded since. Dim red lights. Music. Almost danceable.
She doesn't know why she thought they wore those pilot suits all the time. Or how they managed to find anything tighter. But hell, the place looks like a meat market. She feels underdressed in her blouse and slacks, among the dozen or so off-duty Pilots in silk shirts, short skirts, corsets… are those leather pants?
Is that Blake? She almost doesn't recognize him with chopsticks holding his hair up, but he sees her, lets go of the short brunette in the latex minidress, comes over.
She isn't looking for pity and doesn't want it. She doesn't know why she's here, exactly, just not that.
"Take your crop top and shove it up—"
"You look like you could use a drink. Some company."
Fucking Blake is probably a better person than she is.
He guides her to a barstool, takes one himself, beckons to the girl he was with.
"No," she says, reconsidering, "I don't want to interrupt."
"Driga," he says, gesturing to the brunette. "Driga, this is—"
"Holy shit, Blake. I know who she is. Sorry. Who you are. I piloted a Marauder in the service," the other pilot says. She's a little drunk already. "What a fucking beast. Saved my ass so many times, I swear. This round is absolutely on me."
"I'm, uh, I'm flattered…"
It's weird talking about Armour to a woman whose nipples she can very plainly see through the black material of her dress. Also weird is that the heavy AMG-4 Marauder had a very short production run.
"…which service, exactly?"
"Don't worry about it," Driga says, and winks conspiratorially. "But in case you were wondering, it can kick through an office building with no trouble. Huge fan. Obviously."
Drinks arrive. Something fruity and strong. The three of them toast AMG, sarcastically. She orders the next round. The next round arrives. They toast the AMG-4, Destroyer of Office Buildings. Then another round she doesn't remember ordering.
"You're pretty in person. I mean. For a desk jockey. But like seriously what are you doing in a. A Pilot bar. Huh?"
Driga's as up in her face as the shorter woman can be without falling off her bar stool. Teasingly aggressive.
"Drinking my sorrows away. So, so tired of the whole desk jockey thing," she says.
"Okay but what sorrows though? Blake told me the AMG-7 just utterly is on the next level for a compact medium Armour. You gotta tell me what it's like to pilot it. I don't know if he's lying."
"Wish I could," she says. "I can't pilot it."
"You built a machine so epic you can't pilot it? Fucking. No way."
"Driga," she says, to a woman she's never met but who probably won't remember this conversation, "I can't pilot at all."
"Pssshhht. Oh shit. You're serious?"
She lowers her head sadly.
"Okay well, here's a thing, artificer lady: five years ago, neither could I."
"What? What happened?"
"Take me home tonight, maybe I'll tell you."
Turns out Driga's not actually a brunette. Her hair is green. It looked brown under the red lights in the bar and the orange lights on the tram, but it's green.
"Wait," Driga says, as she slips a dress strap off the pilot's shoulder, "we like barely know each other, you know? You don't have to fuck me. But," the pilot trails off.
She brought Driga home with her. How could she not have?
"Can you just sleep next to me? I don't sleep super well by myself."
"Yeah. Yeah, actually, that's fine." She sighs, returns the strap to its original position. "That might be better."
"It's not because I don't like you. It's more, we can finish the conversation we started at the Rusty Thruster, or we can have sex, but probably not both."
She's almost afraid to say it out loud, in case she misheard.
"The one where you said you couldn't pilot five years ago?"
"Yeah. It gets heavy. But actually, I think I need to talk about it as much as you need to hear it." The pilot leans against her, shivers. "Also I need to borrow a pair of your pajamas because this dress is very thin."
A few minutes later, they're both clad in fuzzy pajamas. The pilot's shorter than she is, and looks slightly lost in the borrowed clothing. She's put on a pot of tea for later. It's an odd kind of intimacy.
"So yeah," Driga gets right to it. "I'm not a natural pilot. I'm augmented, just like they say the fucking Civis are."
"That's incredible," she says. "I had no idea we could do that."
"Shit, I think we barely have an idea how we do that. I almost died, you know?"
"How does it work?"
"I say I almost died, and, I mean, not in combat, let me be clear, that's how life was for years, but I mean died in the infusion chamber without a chance of seeing death coming for me, and you want to know how it works. You definitely want it as bad as I did. Maybe worse."
She shrugs. "The more I think about it, the more I'm surprised I did without it for so long, and now that I know it's possible? Yes, I want it bad."
"So what they do is they stick you in a tank of liquid-format nano. I don't know what kind, I'm not an artificer. You gotta breathe through an oxygen hose. Then they dump in some other kind until you start feeling kinda woozy and melty. Then they take away the oxygen hose. You end up, I guess, breathing a bunch of it too. It shouldn't work. And all the while it feels like you're dissolving, falling apart, but you look, and you're still there. And then you look again, and you're not there, and you don't know what you're looking with…"
Driga looks like she's about to cry.
"Hey, hey, slow down," she says to Driga. "It's okay, you're okay, you're safe. Take my hand if it helps."
It's reflex, the offer of a hand to hold. Her skin is crawling and she doesn't feel any more safe than the pilot, because she knows she's going to do this horrible thing the instant somebody gives her a chance to do it.
The pilot grabs her hand and holds onto it. Staring past her, Driga continues, "…and then you have to put yourself back together. I was in there for so long, and I know I didn't do it right. You probably noticed my hair."
"I assumed you dyed it."
"Hah, no. I know you saw my pubes too, when I was putting these pajamas on. That's just the most obvious part, of how I put myself back together wrong. The base of my skull, the top part of my spine, those are all metal and composites now, they had to replace those with custom components made while I floated in the tank without them, because I couldn't put myself all the way together on my own. See?"
Driga lifts up her hair, tilts her neck for inspection. She can see faded scarring, something dark under the skin.
"I think I was taller before too. Not that I mind, but I'm pretty sure I was taller. Memory from before's a little fuzzy. Not like, what I know, but who I am, what my body was like."
"Fuck, that's a lot."
"And then I got out of the tank and they showed me a mirror and I was like, okay, was it worth it? Didn't know the answer to that until a day later, when they put me in a Marauder cockpit and it moved like it was part of me."
"So, yes, then?"
"Did it hurt?"
"Not as much as it seems like it should have."
"So… who? Where?"
"I was regular Fleet, but they let me volunteer for this public-private initiative. A little company you may have heard of called Astir Materials Group."
"Oh, yeah," Driga says. "Who else but an Armour manufacturer would want to make Pilots too? That's synergy. I can give you the department head's comms ID right now, if you want."
"Thank you. For. For telling me."
"Yeah, well, thanks for letting me talk. Never seen medical records, but I think most of the other AMG test pilots are naturals. Maybe all. Feel like an impostor, sometimes."
"Me, too. Different way. But… yeah."
"And I wasn't kidding about the Marauder. It still moves with a frankly astonishing number of holes in it. You do good work." Driga eyes her. "Maybe too good."
"You think AMG's ever gonna augment one of their top Armour designers? After that, if you even survive, you're gonna want to be a Pilot. I don't think either of us is in the kind of job you get to quit, but you, for sure."
She says, "I'm not going to give them a choice."
Later, they sip the herbal tea in silence.
Still later, Driga cuddles up against her to go to sleep. She's still awake long after the pilot is resting peacefully.
She whispers, again, plans turning in her head, "I'm not going to give them a choice."
The program's never exactly been hidden; they just don't advertise it much. Now that she knows the department exists, it's easy enough to get her hands on the medical criteria for augmentation, and the medical applications for augmentation. Of course somebody thought of that.
She has a talk with the department head, a chat about how hard it is to find suitable pilots for newer designs, what their augmentation capacity looks like for the next few months. They're between recruitment waves at the moment. Most tanks empty. She promises to send any suitable candidates his way.
She changes her emergency contact information later that month.
The "accident" is almost too easy to stage. She exposes herself to TA1's Core while inspecting Core-materials interfaces as per usual, wearing a suit which will have turned out to be mislabeled as production use, but is actually a training dummy, with useless filters. And now she calls in, from the scrub-down area, as her skin stains blue and begins to crystallize, "Hey, I've got a problem here! Nanocontamination, someone signal Medical!"
If they want to keep her, they're going to have to augment her with something even more aggressive.
The perfect plan, she thinks, shivering, as they go through all the first aid that won't work at this level of exposure: sprays, powders, standard emergency swarmtalk. The perfect plan. If they want to keep me.
Her vision's going a bit blurry by the time they wheel her bed into a room with a large tank in it. Someone gives her an oxygen mask.
As they lower her into the tank, she flashes back to seeing AMG-7 TA1 power up for the first time, glowing with blue-green light.
An eternity later, the fluid drains away. Someone helps her from the tank. Shaky legs, a lot of pain in one side. She catches a glimpse of blue hair, realizes it's hers, and there's a lot of it. How long…?
"You've been in an accident, but you're going to be okay. I'm going to be briefly assessing your mental state before we do anything else. Can you tell me your name?"
She can't. She can't remember. She can call to mind the mechanical and materials structure of every major joint in her pet monster, could draw its parts from faceted armor down to the fractal branching of its avionics bus if someone gave her a stylus, but she can't remember her name. But the voice wants to know something. A name. The AMG-7 had a name too, one she proposed, one that didn't catch on, but one that stuck with her:
"Aurora. It's Aurora."
"Not…" a name that might have been hers once.
"Not any more."
"Identity disturbance. Okay. Wouldn't be the first time we've seen that." They make a note on a handheld slate. "Pronouns?"
Another note. "Okay, no change there. What's your occupation?"
"Can you tell me specifically what you do with Armour?"
She tilts her head, flexes her muscles; despite the deep aching pain in her side, feeling herself in a way that she hasn't before.
"Put me in one, and I'll show you."