Early the following morning crowds began to assemble in the public park adjacent to the Royal Pyramid. The same park that would have been the landing site for Mellor’s ill-fated invasion had it not been for the fact that Mellor was in-route to Kayden. As the number of people grew, a line of troops formed up at the base of the Royal Pyramid’s plaza. Each of them wore helmets, protective gear, and carried pain-inducing batons. Along the top of the stairs appeared a second line armed with pulse rifles.
Chants and angry shouts arose from the masses as they marched on the line. The two groups faced off only an arm’s length apart. Speeches were made from makeshift stages. Torin and Shylock were among some of the biggest applause gainers, pointing up at the imposing structure as they cried out. They were there, starring in a media circus, instead of the government building where Vailla and a handful of counsels looked foolish.
By mid-morning, the crowd ringed the building and spilled into the surrounding plazas. The military’s defensive line was spread thin. Only certain units were trusted enough to perform such a delicate job; defections had become rampant.
The violence actually started by accident, despite conflicting accounts. The sheer mass of the crowd pushed the forward people into the first line of troops. At the direction of a sergeant, who had never been in that type of situation, (indeed few on either side had ever been involved in a mass demonstration before) the troops started driving people back with the pain batons. Although there were no real injuries from the burns of the sticks, the screams were enough to ignite the crowd. The first line of troops was quickly overrun and the second was left with no other choice than to open fire with stun bursts. The resulting stampede from the gunfire killed three people.
The first of many such battles ended in what the fevered media called the Pyramid Massacre. The actual number of the dead, or the fact that it was an accident, didn’t matter, there had been blood spilled, red blood.
The crowds were back in force the next day, only there were barricades protecting both sides. An unwritten rule had been laid down that if the lines were not crossed arrests were not made. The protests did little to interrupt the daily business of the complex though. It was a noisy distraction that couldn’t be heard through sealed windows. Supplies and personnel gained access to the building through the many underground portals, indeed most of the city’s traffic moved under the surface. The protesters knew this of course, but the multitude of people looked better on the broadcasts when it was spread out in the open. And any attempt to actually enter or blockade the building resulted in arrests, with actual charges. The initial apprehensions and subsequent people taken into custody were only held for a few days of processing. This served to find out who they were and annoy their employers with their absence. Leaders that inevitably rose out of the struggle soon learned these lessons.
Over the coming weeks the crowds shrank. Some lost interest; others had to get back to their jobs and lives. Marlanna’s greatest success was in disturbing the daily lives of people as little as possible. In addition to rarely appearing in public and not giving the media any statements to misquote, she also created a number of distractions to keep attention off herself. As well as dissolving the General Assembly, she also invalidated the tax laws. People, who had felt overburdened by a glutinous tax department had no taxes whatsoever. They also had no government or services of any kind either.
A provisional government, made up by most of the members of the old Aultrian delegation, was set up on Aultra to handle civil and domestic matters, only. As Marlanna saw it, this would give the people a false sense of control, leaving her with the military and all foreign matters under her firm domination.
The nation as a whole was reformed into a true republic. The new council on Aultra had absolutely no control over the colonies. The six provinces on Darcane became six independent nations. The distant planet of Tainus had pretty much always operated on its own, so they were more than happy to have Aultra out of their hair. Eventually the three remaining minor systems of Arkonus, Payson, and Arrianus would also form independent governments.
Each of the eleven states was allowed to form their own governments provided they adhered to three main conditions. First was that these were to be democratically elected governments that conformed to the National Charter, which remained unchanged from Emperor Dayson’s original conception. Second was that they were to contribute to national defense. And third, allow open recruiting among their populaces. The unwritten fourth rule was that they were in no way interfere with Marlanna’s interests, which encompassed anything she said they did.
A committee, made up of each government’s representatives, would be formed to oversee relations between the former colonies. An appointed council was created to oversee the military and serve as Marlanna’s puppet government. She faded into the background and ruled from behind the scenes.
Having been reduced to just another member of the new Republic Of Aultra, people on Aultra were the most resistant of the new system. When the new provisional council fought back, Marlanna crushed them with a devastating blow.
She dictated that the new and leaner Council would have to adhere to an unheard of law that required them to obtain a popular vote before assessing any taxes on the people, a very popular move. One of the first acts of the new Council was to try and circumvent this provision and reinstate all of the old revenue, despite the much smaller demand. The new propaganda machine, which was growing out of the new Fleet Command, was successful in using this “outrage against the people” to deflect attention even further away from the military.
The entire matter left the new Council broke and weak. Indeed the whole affair led to a nationwide economic disaster. Large corporations collapsed only to be gobbled up by a new conglomeration. Marlanna smashed corporate power by nationalizing all military production. She actually sent troops into some corporate offices to directly take control where needed. Everything was organized under an umbrella company controlled by her, Pyramid Enterprises. New, well paying, jobs became available to replace the fallen giants, if people didn’t mind working for Marlanna, and of course, if they weren’t on certain lists.
In an even more brilliant move, Marlanna sought to bring a quick end to the war with Delphia. Meeting with the liaison officer to the Delphians (not one of her supporters) she told him, “I want you to get in touch with your contacts on Delphia. Tell them that I have taken complete control of the nation and the military. Tell them that I am willing to discuss peace with them.”
“They wouldn’t talk to the rightful Council. Why would they talk to you? Especially when they still hold the advantage?”
Marlanna was more than confident. “Shortly after your meeting their advantage will disappear. Once that base has been destroyed, I suspect they will be in a rush to contact you.”
“That base has been there for a cycle. How do you propose to...?”
“You need not concern yourself with that. With their support base gone, their fleet will be vulnerable to our reinforcements.”
“They’ll want concessions,” he said.
“Concessions?” Marlanna scoffed. “I will allow them to withdraw their fleet, intact.”
The representative doubted her ability to carry out the threat, but met with his contacts as instructed. It was those contacts that kept him in his job as others vanished around him. The entire structure of Fleet Command was being reorganized. Most fleet general jobs had been merged or eliminated as Marlanna decreased the circle of power around her to a loyal few. When it was over, a fleet general would be promoted, by her, to fill the empty third marshal slot. Only eight other officers would hold the rank of fleet general. Each of those people held a specific job. A job was not created for them simply because they had clawed their way to that rank. Three fleet generals worked in the field, actually commanding the fleet. Three served as planetary commanders on each of the three main planets. Two more served as operation officers, running Fleet Command itself.
As for Shylock, his usefulness was elsewhere. After days of appearing at the dwindling rallies, he called a press conference. The reporters, who expected another condemnation of Marlanna’s actions, were shocked to hear him say that all of the new provisional governments on Darcane had signed a mutual defense pact with Aultra. Actually he signed it with the new Aultrian Star Fleet, i.e. Marlanna. He explained that it was a narrow vote, which he did not support, but voted for as he felt there was no alternative. Darcane would be left completely defenseless without it. He was quick to add that it was a temporary measure and would be canceled at the first sign of abuse. Asked if Darcane would start organizing their own military, he declined to answer and cut the meeting short.
He was to return to Darcane and assume a leadership role in one of their independent governments, under the military as Aultra’s was of course. Similar plans were made for those in the old Tainus contingent that cooperated. Old enemies were bought off with power. Although it might have been limited, it was power nonetheless.
Kayden had once been a fighter and training base. Although the runway and most of the buildings were still there, only a small portion of the pre-holocaust facility was being used by a detachment of the military’s Intelligence Division. Surrounded by an abandoned and decaying city, the base was completely secluded from the outside world. Even though there had been a large increase in the population of the base, the crew of the Oronos and troops to guard them, most of the buildings were still empty and neglected. New buildings had been erected for the research facility; however the guests were forced to utilize the old reconditioned barracks of the training portion until they had “gone through”. They then received better housing on a newer portion of the base.
With over three-thousand people to process, most of which needed false histories, the operation had moved exceeding slow. Only a few dozen could be done each day. Each morning the compliment of the Oronos, members of the recovery crew, and even people from the Attragone, were assembled on the old parade ground and waited for their names to be called. The lucky contestants were then shuttled to the research building and guarded in a large waiting room.
People spoke of what they’d been through and where they were going as they waited their turns. Guards looked down from a balcony while people were called over to a window one at a time. For the most part, it was a peaceful procedure. There was that one woman of course, with her face painted red on one side and black on the other. It took four battered guards to strap her into the machine.
“I’ll get for this you bastards!” Lazell had screamed as the heavy doors closed on her.
Otherwise things went smoothly.
Aurora was actually relieved when her name was called one morning. It was finally going to be over. Her nightmare of a life would be wiped away and replaced by who knew what. She could end up being anybody. Whomever it was it had to better than who she was.
“We love you Aurora!” was shouted as she walked to the waiting truck. She flipped them off over her shoulder.
She wasn’t sure who it was. Could’ve been Sully. They’d kept her isolated most of the time she’d been there on a suicide watch. Somebody must’ve seen more value in her life than she had.
Looking around the waiting room, she only saw two familiar faces. Hellor and Lorran sat huddled in a corner. Lorran gave her an uneasy smile as Hellor went over to the window where they called people in.
“What is it Major?” asked the processing officer. “It’s not your time yet.”
“Can I ask something? She and I,” he motioned toward Lorran, “we’ve found each other. Is there any way we can be put together?”
“No, the programs are already written. It’s already been decided where you’ll go.”
“You’re steeling our entire lives here. The least you can do is give us a chance of meeting again. Maybe station us together and we’ll find each other again.”
The man looked him in the eye for a moment. He felt guilty about the dirty job he was doing. Having found his own one true love after many years of searching, he could not imagine someone ripping her away.
“I’ll see if I can get posted together at some point in the future.” He turned back to his work so not to reveal any emotion. “That’s the best I can do. If you’re meant for each other, then it will happen again.”
“Thank you,” Hellor said before returning to Lorran, who then looked somewhat more hopeful.
“Captain Aurora!” called that same officer.
Aurora took her time in walking over, a complete look of indifference on her face. She passed one last nod to Hellor and Lorran before being led through a door by an unarmed technician.
“Aren’t you on break?” the officer asked the technician as the door to the waiting room locked behind them.
Grabbing a packet of information off the desk he replied, “I’ll go after this one.”
He led her from the office and down a hall lined with doors. Through the open double doors at the end of the hall Aurora caught sight of a man strapped into a bulky machine, surrounded by equipment. It was no one she knew.
That was where it would happen. That was where she would cease to exist and become someone else. The sight shook her cool exterior a bit before the doors slammed shut.
The technician pointed her into a small examining room. There was a sheet covered examining table and an empty counter on the other side of the room. The technician directed her to sit on the table and told her someone would be in shortly for her. Then his eyes darted about as he stood before her at the table. He shifted his body a bit to ensure that he was blocking the monitoring camera as he placed the packet on the bed then left, locking the door behind him.
Aurora had indifference to what he was doing. She bid him farewell with a smile and term she learned from a friend, “Fuck you.”
Knowing full well that they were watching her, she sat there for what seemed an eternity. She was no longer angry. Having been isolated and having no one to talk to for weeks since her capture, she had already squelched the anger. She’d blamed everybody, including herself. There was only one thing left for her, and she wasn’t going to give them the satisfaction of seeing it.
Rather than breakdown, she finally picked up the packet. She was in it, her new life, and the person she was to become. There was a new identification card with her name but a different registration number. She was no longer Aurora of Shea; she was Aurora of Dane. Dane was a derivative of her father’s name. Somehow that wasn’t so bad. They had at least given her some link to her past, honored the father she would never know. They could have made her a Forron.
Forron, or fore runner, was someone who was starting a new clan. It was usually someone who was disenchanted with their old one or wanted the prestige of having people named after them. The clan name was usually a shortened version of their name.
Reading on she saw that all of her Tyramma ratings and decorations were still intact, although the circumstances under which she’d received them were changed. Most of the big awards were marked “classified operations”. The last secret mission, which she had supposedly just completed with her unit, had netted a few medals.
As for the rest of her life, her closest relatives had died in a transport crash, leaving her the sole member of the Dane Clan. She wondered just how big of a transport that was and how many of the other crewmember’s relatives were on it. All of them were orphans. Everyone she’d ever known outside of the Oronos was dead. They were all gone. All that was left of them was an aching hole in her chest. The Krix had burned it there with complete indifference. A tiny seed of hope, that unannounced to her, had grown in that gaping hole, had been torn out by Marlanna. That was not the worst of it. It was the betrayal that had torn the hole open even wider and let what was left of her spill out. She nearly doubled over with the pain.
There was nothing she could do to stop it, tears streamed down her face. Not wanting to draw too much attention to it, Aurora sat straight up and didn’t wipe them away. The warm wet sensation ran down her cheeks to her neck. The packet had brought on the flood so she closed it and placed it back down beside her. She blinked at the stinging in her eyes until it finally started to slow.
The drying paths in her skin started to itch. Using a small wash sink in the corner, she rinsed off her face. When she looked up into the mirror, Aurora suddenly realized that she felt better. She felt somehow cleansed. She was ready to move beyond it all and get on with her life.
Realizing that she’d been there for far too long, she called out, “All right, let’s get this going.”
“Who’s that?” asked one technician as she glanced up at a monitor.
Another man looked at his computer’s list and replied, “Captain Aurora.”
“She been through?”
The man glanced at the completed list. “Yes, she has.”
“Why is she still here? She has her new file, get her out of here.”
“I’ll get her,” said the man.
The door finally swung open and a technician (not the same one that brought her in) said, “I’m sorry for the wait, Captain. Right this way.”
Picking up the packet, Aurora stepped into the corridor and faced the double doors at the end. She was ready. She would walk in there and face it standing, like a true Tyramma.
“Captain?” said the young technician, already two steps in the other direction. “This way, madam.”
A bit confused, but not showing it, Aurora turned around and followed him back toward processing room. She was taken into a different office and stood before a counter where the technician told her, “Now remember, the reason we erased the last thirty days from your memory is to cover up the classified mission that you’ve been on. You are not to discuss this or the fact that you were ever at this base.”
“Okay,” Aurora said slowly.
“You’ll be reissued your uniform, communicator, and weapon when you muster with the rest of your unit in the morning.”
The technician held out a computer placard for her. “You have to sign for receipt of that packet and the briefing I just gave you.”
Aurora scribbled her name on the bottom of the placard, then froze when it came time for her number. Something was definitely wrong; she knew it was a bad idea to write her old number.
The hesitation didn’t go unnoticed. “Oh,” smiled the young technician, “that can be a side effect of the process, it can mess with your memory a bit. It’ll pass. Just look at your ID.”
She dug through the packet for the card, and then wrote down the new number.
“One more thing.” He reached into a draw then handed her a small stack of patches for her uniform. The insignia was black rectangle with red bar across the top; another that extended down the middle and two shorter ones on either side that connected with the top bar and went half way down to form an upside-down trident. A small version of the Tyramma emblem sat over the top center junction of red bars. It was a variant of the old Numarrian navy symbol honoring the sea god Poseidon.
He let a smirk slip out. “We’re no longer the Unified Defense Force; we’re the Aultrian Star Fleet.”
“Great,” Aurora replied with less of an attempt to hide her apathy. She had started out in the Grand Alliance Force, briefly wore the insignia of the UDF, now it was the ASF. The future had been changed, and not entirely for the better.
With a smile for the attractive woman, the technician led her from the building to a marked stop for ground transportation. “You just missed the last bus. The next should be along within a mayda. It’ll take you to your quarters.”
Aurora looked out at the dark, empty streets. She’d been there all day and hadn’t eaten.
“Is there a mess hall there?” she asked.
“There’s one in that area, or you could use the one here.”
Aurora didn’t think that was a good idea at all. She wanted to get as far away from that room as possible, before they realized their mistake, or sprang the cruel joke on her.
“Where am I staying?”
“It’s down the road to the right,” he pointed.
“Can I walk?”
He seemed a bit confused by her question, but answered, “Sure, but the bus won’t be long.”
He then had a better idea. “I’m off soon,” he stuttered slightly, “I, ah, could give you a ride?”
“No, thank you. I’ve been in space for a while, I’ll walk.”
With that, she stepped from the doorway and out into the night. No one ran after her, no one tried to stop her. She was free for the first time since she could remember.
The cool night air felt good as Aurora walked the deserted streets of Kayden. She wondered if they were watching her. What would happen if she suddenly darted off the route to her quarters? Standing on the side of the dark road, she took a long look around. There was nowhere for her to go. The lights of the research facility blazed behind her, the lights of the housing area lay ahead. There were a few other patches of lights here and there on the base, other than that there was nothing. The valley below and hillsides beyond that were covered with rotting buildings by day, were dark and dead. The only course for her was the one laid out for her, for the time being anyway.
As she walked on, the headlights of a small two passenger car cast her shadow before her. It slowed as it came alongside her. The young technician who had seen her off she assumed. He’d probably talked his boss into letting him go early so he could try for some sex. Under other circumstances she might be up for it, maybe kick him around a little, however she just wasn’t interested at the time.
She looked over as the driver’s window rolled down to reveal the sole occupant.
“Get in,” said a deep voice. Now here was a face that need kicking, Horace. And she was all too happy to comply, with the kicking that is.
Horace’s head snapped back as her foot flew in the window. He grabbed it and held on for a moment before pushing her away.
“I don’t think we want to explain why you’re so mad at me, do we?” he said. “After all we’ve never met, have we?”
Aurora held off on her next attack. The price of her freedom was about to be presented.
“Get in,” Horace repeated calmly.
She stood a moment reviewing her options, there were very few. In the Alternate Future, Horace had been known for working in Special Operations, although she hadn’t imagined he’d been in that deep. Had one of the results of the Oronos’ arrival been to throw what would have been a good and honorable man, the granite hero, into the darkness of Marlanna? With caution, masked by her cool exterior, Aurora walked around to the other side and got in.
“It really wasn’t that difficult,” Horace said with a certain smugness as he started driving toward the housing area, “moving your name from one list to another. That’s why they think you’ve been done.”
“Funny thing about the truth,” he said without looking at her, “no matter how deep you bury it; somehow it seeps back to the surface. As big as this is, someday, somehow, this is all going to come out. You will be of use that day.”
“I’m some kind of insurance for your boss, Packlin?” A quick glance told her she had hit a nerve. No one was to know he was secretly working for Packlin.
“Another piece in their little game of power?” she continued. “Forget it.”
“You should play it quiet for now,” Horace said, “try to fit into the role they’ve created for you. You’ll be spread all over the Fleet, but they’ll be watching you. All of you, to ensure there aren’t any leaks. There’s quite an espionage war brewing.”
“How does it feel to be a lackey, a fool? To be torn down by the crimes of greater people? That old excuse of ‘I was just following orders’ won’t serve you when judgment day is here.”
“This is where you will stay for the night.” Horace pulled over in front of a small building. “Heed well what I have told you.
“Her Highness is actually a very enlightened spirit, very old. I suspect that her decision to not execute all of you has something to do with that. She may fear that one of you could be powerful enough to cross back over to this side. Either way, never forget how easily you could be made to cease to exist.
“One more thing.” He had to ask. It had been eating at him for far too long. “Back on the ship, you people knew me, how?”
“Because you were the biggest asshole that ever lived,” she responded. She didn’t mention that there would have been a statue of him in a park near where she’d grown up.
“Something to strive for,” Horace smirked.
Aurora grabbed the handle and pushed open the door. “You know, I’m really disappointed in you. How could you be mixed up in something like this?” She slammed the door and stormed off.
As Horace sat there, one thought pounded in his head, she was right. He was a fool. Is this what he wanted his life to be?
“Wait,” he called out to her.
Aurora took her sweet time in walking back and leaning in the window.
With a heavy sigh, he turned and looked her in the eye; straight in the eye as a true soldier would.
“Packlin doesn’t know about you,” Horace said slowly.
“Then whose piece am I?”
The sincere look in his eye was unmistakable. This was the true man that had watched her play as a child through stone eyes. As a small girl her beloved father would take her to a nearby park. There stood a great stone monolith of a statue, a giant of a man in granite as well as life.
When she asked her father who it was one day, her father had said with reverence, “That, that is General Horace. He was a great man, a great worrier. He was a hero. He died protecting you.”
The great man of stone had been killed a few years before she’d been born. Yet, there he stood, watching over her; looking brave and true. He watched her play, he watched her grow. He watched her sneak her first beer, he watched happy, and he watched her cry.
Aurora had learned about him as she’d grown. Once in the military, who he was and what he’d done took on a whole new meaning. In a way, she’d come to idealize and respect him.
Then one day she traveled back in time and met him, much to her dismay. There stood no great man of stone and honor. There stood a simple man. But then not so simple. He was a black op’s commando, a member of the infamous Shadow Corps, a criminal, a murderer, a minion of Princess Marlanna, an enemy.
How could she have been so wrong about him, so naïve? But then was she?
Here was the one truth that she would come to learn about the Paradox. The events would change, but people were still the same. The evil were still evil and good still good. Horace, like most people, stood in the gray area in-between. Although she was sure he would choose the good when it came down to it.
“Move now,” Aurora blurted out, “while they’re still disorganized.”
“Now is not the time,” said Horace, “you know that. There is a purpose for all of this. Marlanna has a destiny to fulfill. She is the difference in defeating the Krix. In time things will be set right.”
“Then you are a fool, if you think this will just work out for the better. We need to take action.”
“When the time is right,” he responded. “I will contact you at some point. Say nothing of this until then.”
She nodded her agreement and started off.
“Oh by the way,” Aurora turned back, “you’re still an asshole.”
Horace laughed out loud then drove off into the night. Up until that point, he had been second-guessing his plan to enter the game. It was the gnawing of his conscience that had pushed him into such a bold move as to save her from the process. He then wished he had saved more, but then too many of them would be difficult to control. If he was going to play the game, he had to stay in control, not that he felt he could truly control her.
He was on a different road in his journey, the right road. As rocky as it would become, he would stick to it. Maybe someday he would find the strength to thank her for that kick that set him right.