The Secrets of The Tower, Part Two

 "Aw hell, look at this one! She's just a kid."

"I hate it when we get kids."

"I hate that they make us recruit from planets like these. It's bullshit."

"It's the rules, man, they need recruits."

"I know."

Tan woke suddenly, aware of the voices around her and wondering where she was. It was dark. No, she realized, there was something blocking her vision. A blindfold? It felt heavier. A helment. She tried to raise her hands to take off the helmet but couldn't.

"She's awake," the first voice said. 

The second voice sighed. "Should we try?"

"Yeah."

Tan felt hands on her head and then the helmet was gently lifted off of her head and two faces came into view.

"Where am I?" Tan asked. "Where is the Great Goddess Shanter?"

"We'll take you to her, kiddo," the first voice belonged to a woman. She was stocky and muscular and there was a long scar running across her face. She smiled down at Tan. "How are you feeling?"

Tan considered this. "Hungry?"

The woman chuckled. "We can help you with that too," she said. "My name is Pakenham. Over there," she pointed to the second figure on the other side fo the room, "is Bowden."

"Is this Paradise?" Tan asked. "Are you servants of the Great Goddess Shanter?"

"No, kiddo, we're not," Pakenham replied.

"Show her," Bowden called over.

"Give her a minute," Pakenham said.

"Show her," Bowden insisted. "We need to see if we'll need to download the upgrade package into her or not."

Pakenham sighed. She stepped over to Tan's bed and undid the restraints on her arms and legs. "Can you stand, kiddo?"

Tan put her legs onto the floor. It was cold and made out of a material she had never seen before. This didn't seem like Paradise to hher. If these two were servants of the Great Goddess Shanter, they seemed awfully... normal. She pushed herself upwards and after taking a hesitant step or two forward, nodded to Pakenham.

"Come with me then, kiddo," she said. Pakenham led her out of the room and into a long hallway which was brightly lit. "Where does the ligth come from?" Tan asked.

"Light components," Pakenham said. She caught Tan's expression and sighed. "Ugh, I hate this. They're...  torches," she said. "Specially made ones that concentrate the light into crystals."

"That sounds incredible," Tan said. "May I see one?"

"When we're done, perhaps," Pakenham said. They didn't take long to reach their destination- another door marked with letters that Tan didn't recognize. 

"Kiddo," Pakenham said. She looked as if she was struggling with something. "I hate this. I hate this. I hate this," she muttered. Then leaned down and put a hand on Tan's shoulder. "Be brave, kiddo. What you're about to see, it's... a lot for some people. Some people can't take it. I know you can."

"What if I can't?"

Pakenham's mouth twisted. "You're young. You got this."

Tan took a deep breath and settled herself. "Okay," she looked over at Pakenham. "I'm ready."

Pakenham nodded and touched a button next to the door and it slid open. The room beyond was a long semi-circle that seemed like it could hold everyone on the farm and, Tan realized as she took a step inside, was probably big enough to hold everyone in the village and in the King's Palace by the sea as well. She felt a rising sense of nervousness begin to build in her .

She turned to Pakenham. "The Great Goddess Shanter dwells in a land of plenty, where your cares are washed away and you never hurt and never feel pain or hunger anymore. This isn't paradise, is it?"

Pakenham shook her head.

"Where am I?"

"Are you sure you want to know, kiddo?"

Tan nodded.

"Okay," Pakenham said. She reached over and touched something on the inside of the wall next to do the door and then a deep rumble began to echo across the room and Tan cried out in surprise and terror as the wall began to split in two and open. She wanted to cry. She wanted to run away. She was breathing heavily, but stayed standing as the rumbling subsided and the open wall, now a window fell silent. Tan stepped forward little by little to take in the view.

Black. So much black, not the black of the night sky above the farm at night, but deeper. Darker. More complete and eternal- but there were stars out there too. So, it had to be the sky.

She stepped closer.

A green and blue globe, far below them hung there. Tan's breathing picked back up again and to her astonishment, she began to cry.

"Kiddo?" She felt Pakenham's hand on her shoulder.

"It's..." Tan took a deep, shuddering breath. "It's so... beautiful. What is it?"

"It's your world, kiddo," Pakenham said.

"So, I was wrong, this is Paradise?"

"No," Pakenham said. "Most eople from worlds like yours don't make it this far," she said.

"Worlds?" Tan asked. "You mean-"

"If you want to know more, you'll have to take the next step and come with me."

Tan thought about her family and the farm far below. Part of her wanted to go home, but she didn't know how. The walls became windows here. They were fixed in the night sky, like some sort of an invisible star. The torches were magic. The floor was made or something cold and hard- but perfectly smooth, unlike the rough hewn slate floors of the cellars of the farm. She took a deep breath, a tiny part of her wanting to grieve for the loss of her family. she couldn't go home. She didn't know how and it was unlikely that anyone here was going to help her. Pakenham seemed nice enough, but it was obvious that she and Bowden had some kind of a job to do and helping people like Tan wasn't it.

If she somehow managed to get away and get home, would her family believe her? A magic invisible star int he sky, with torches made of magic crystals and walls that became windows at a touch? They would think she was insane, taken by a devil or some kind of evil spirit and cast her out. More tears came then. She shouldn't have jumped from the cart. She should have run and hidden. You wanted an adventure, didn't you? 

She looked back up at Pakenham. "Okay," she said. She wiped away her tears. "I'm ready."

~~~

The dropship cut it's way through the shattered wreckage of the Imperial Galactic Fleet with ease. The skies above Vega Prime were a testament to the power of her forces and the scale of her victory. Fourteen Scimitar-Class destroyers were gone now. The spine of the Imperial Fleet had been shattered and there were maybe a half-a-dozen left, too far away and too disorganized for her forces to bother with.

She leaned back in her seat as the dropship began to vibrate as they enetered the upper atmosphere. She closed her eyes and breathed in through her nose and out through her mouth- the simple breathing exercise that her Drill Sergeant, in a moment rare sympathy for the scared kid from one of those 'ass-backwards, boonie' planets, had taught her. The vibration gradually ceased and the heat shields retracted, revealing the lush, green landscape of the planet far below.

The capital of the Great Galactic Imperium, Vega Prime was a playground for the aristocracy, where the privileged few carved out estates thousands of times larger than her family's farm and ruled over them, waited on by a massive underclass of servants and gardeners- not farmers, because no one would dare do something so incredibly crass as growing food on Vega Prime. That's what the other worlds in the Galactic Imperium were for.

All of this was going to end today. She could see the great city of Heilbronn ahead of them. The estates gave way to villages and then towns and then the city itself. Buildings became taller and taller, reaching skyward- but not too high, because at the center of the city was the Imperial Palace, another impossibly high tower that stretched up into the sky. It was, she noted, almost identical to the one that had stood it's lonely watch on the horizon near her family farm.

The farm. It was hard to hold onto the farm now. Pakenham and Bowden had downloaded the upgrade package directly to her brain and it had nearly wiped her memory entirely. She couldn't remember the faces of her brothers now- or her father. Her mother's gentle smile she could still recall- the smell of jorlaja root pie in the kitchen of an autumn and planting calina seeds in the spring.

The first two years had been spent alternating between terror in battle and just desperately struggling to survive and learn about the new world she had been thrust into. The more she learned, the angrier she became. After the battle of Deneb IV, she had discovered that she wasn't the only one who was angry. There were hundreds, thousands, just like her and soon they had begun to talk to one another and a year after that fateful battle, they had launched their own rebellion- not in favor of one faction of the Imperium or another, but against the Imperium itself.

The dropship was slowing now, maneuvering alongside the Tower to a docking station. She heard the noise of the docking platform extending outward from the Tower and then she felt it settle gently onto the platform and heard the enginges begin to power down and the landing ramp extend outward.

She unbuckled her harnass and stood, bouncing on the balls of her feet for a moment or two, just to make sure she could get a feel for the gravity. It wasn't bad, she decided. 

Turning, she walked to the back of the ship, where she could feel the warm, pleasant breeze of Vega Prime creeping up the ramp to meet her. She paused at the bottom of the ramp and fitted the cap to her head before striding forward to meet the welcoming committee.

"General!"

She smiled and returned the salute.

"DiLawrence, it's good to see you again."

"You as well, General," the feline replied.

"Is the Tower secure?"

"Yes, General," DiLawrence said. "He's in the Throne Room, awaiting your judgment."

"My judgment is going to be quick," she replied, striding toward the door. DiLawrence kept pace with her while the other soldiers fell in behind them. "Did the Palace guard give you any trouble?"

"Nothing the Space Marines couldn't handle," DiLawrence replied.

"And everything else is ready?"

"Yes, General."

It was a short walk to the throne room as her dropship had landed on the Emperor's personal landing pad. The ornate, marble clad hallways were inlaid with gold trim and elaborate patterns that were obscene in their gaudiness. She felt her gorge rising in disgust at the palace which claimed to rule fairly and justly over the entire galaxy. She passed the scarlet-clad bodies of the imperial guard, which grew in number the closer they came to the entrance of the throne room. So did the evidence of the battle to take the Tower of the Imperium, as shattered marble and black scars marked the walls and smoke hung in the air.

The door to the Throne Room was gone, but there, high on his throne was the Emeperor. He was older than she expected, but she knew the amount of propagranda artists the Imperium had at their disposal could convince just about any Galactic Citizien of anything if they wanted too. Age was just a number to them- and young or old, whomever sat on that throne was going to look every inch and Emperor.

And if the public didn't know what an Emperor should look like, they would be told.

He stood as she entered and drew himself up to his full height and smoothed out his Imperial Uniform, resplendent with medals and commendations, a significant proportion of which, she knew, he had made up himself.

"General Tanala," he said. "It is not too late to repent of this rash betrayal of yours. You can repent of this foolishness, have your rebellion lay down their arms and swear fealty to our throne once more. You will be rewarded if you bring peace-"

Tan didn't hesitate. She drew her sidearm- not her original sidearm, that had been a substandard piece of junk the Imperium issued to all new recruits. Denebian gunsmithing wasn't exactly the best in the galaxy, but what they lacked in quality they made up for in quantity. Now, Altair on the other hand, was where gunsmithing became an art form.

It was called the Mountain Condor. Only a thousand or so had ever been made. It came equipped with magazines that, thanks to Altairian nanotech, could adjust the composition of the bullets for atmospheric, gravity and even surface conditions. She had taken it fron the dead body of Baron Von Himmelstadt after their stormed his mountain redoubt on New Berlin. It had never failed her and it wouldn't fail her now.

There was nothing left to say.

She raised the gun, pulled the trigger once, twice and then lowered it again. The only sound in the throne room was that of the Emperor's body hitting the ground. Tan strode out into the center of the Throne Room, knowing that cameras and live feeds across the galaxy were watching and waiting to see what she was going to do next.

"The Galactic Imperium is dead," she said harshly. "For millennia, every one hundred years, these elites, these feckless aristocrats would tear apart the galaxy in their preplanned Civil Wars to decided which Emperor would ascend the thrione. They would recruit from every planet, including pre-industrial ones like my home planet. Their military tactics were designed to waste the lives of as many people as possible to win some incompetent aristocrat a plume or a fake medal for their pretty uniforms."

"Five years ago, I was one of those new recruits. And what was done to me was monstrous. I was taken from my planet, had I been allowed to return I would have been cast out as a lunatic. The upgrades I was given nearly wiped my memories altogether. The faster than light travel across the galactic battlefield means that when I return home, a hundred or more years will have passed. my family will be dead. How old was I when I was recruited? I was sixteen years old."

"Thanks to multiple upgrades to my body and mind, my youth has been stolen from me. My planet has been denied to me. A regime that permits such monstrosities for the perverse pleasures of the few should not be permitted to exist any longer."

"So, the Imperium is dead. If you are an aristocrat, your titles no longer grant you any immunity before the law. The size of the Imperial Diet will be tripled to allow for representatives from every planet in the Imperium to be democratically elected. Freedom of speech and expression will be guaranteed by law. Elections for the President of the Galactic Republic will be held within three months of the promulgation of a new Constitution and whichever planet that Presidents comes from shal be the capital of this Republic for the duration of their single ten-year term. No one is to be relected."

"I will not lead this new Republic," Tan said. "I am going back to my home planet to see how far along they are in their journey to the stars." She paused and glanced around the throne room, making sure to look into every camera as she did. "Do not think that my absence from the centers of power is by any means a permanent one. I will be watching."

Then she took of her cap, smoothed back her hair and straightened to attention. "Long live the Galactic Republic!"

Her soldiers echoed her. "Long live the Galactic Republic!"

~~~

Home was unrecognizable. Time dilation meant that what felt like five years to her had been over a century to everyone on her planet. They had electricity now and some basic industrial activities. The King was now a Queen and answerable to a Parliament. Her family's farm had long since fallen into disrepair and ruin, but a quiet transaction with the right people meant that she got the land back easily enough.

The transport rumbled to a halt on the edge of the town. It was a town now, no longer a village as it had been when she been growing up here. It was growing in leaps and bounds now and had been on the verge of annexing her family's land until she had returned and put a stop to it. A few more quiet words to the right people and perhaps the Mayor could be persuaded to steer development more toward the other side of town.

She opened the door and got out, lost in the memories. There wasn't much left, but the more she breathed in the sweet air of her home planet, the more she saw of the people, the more the damage done by the upgrades to her mind and body seemed to fade. Despite the constant messages she received, the entreaties to come back and finish the work, she found that she could slip back into being normal again easier than she expected.

The house came first. Then the barns. And by that spring, she had a tractor, a combine and some livestock to care for. A modest little farm. When the time came for planting though, she left the tractor behind and walked out to the edge of the field herself on foot, with a bag of calina seeds slung over shoulder and a rusted hoe she used as a walking stick.

Reaching the edge of the field, she took the bag from off her shoulder and with a practiced hand that surprised even her, she hefted the hoe and brought back down into the dark red soil with a satisfying thunk. The breeze was warm. The Tower was far distant, dark and even, some said these days, beginning to crumble.

Tan slipped a few calina seeds back into the dirt before standing up and leaning on the hoe, surveying the field and the distant outline of her barns and hosue far in the distance. "Now this," she said, "this is a life."

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