I had long dreamt of my retirement. A glorious celebration of my many military victories throughout the ages. A celebration lasting for days or weeks across the empire, perhaps even a day of remembrance eternally etched into time that on this date, we celebrate the many conquests I had fought and won. A testament to the world’s greatest tactician that had brought so many fruits to my nation. When you go into stasis you are allowed to have one dream, and I only dreamt of that day, decades or centuries later. But instead, I spend my retirement alone within the ruins of what used to be my grand command center. There are no people here, just the whirling and beeping of the machines that keep the war machine churning like a locomotive accelerating down the tracks with its passengers and crew long gone.
From time to time the machines called for my assistance. Outside of this bunker, a force still pushed against it through drone lead attacks that couldn’t even dent drywall. There were no brains behind the attacks, no heart. Nothing elegant about them at all, just the same patterns repeated over and over again. That was all I needed to know that whoever we were fighting had been annihilated just as much as we were. An automated offense waging an endless war against a corpse. Ghosts fighting ghosts. But I specialized in offensive tactics, not defensive. If they wanted to win then they froze the wrong tactician all those centuries again, and the machines in their pre-programmed scripts had woken me up to lead them to a swift victory. Not that the machines cared at all. They should have just left me to die with them.
I wander the hallways of my command center, through passageways both familiar and not. The halls of cement and steel devoid of any life. The concrete cracked and eroded. The metal eaten away by rust. The lights within them that still work are either as dim as a candle or strobe in erratic patterns. A smell of decay hangs everywhere in the facility, especially within the bunks. Although my comrades had been long gone, their ghosts still haunt these corridors in the form of a rotten musk. Only the dust of their skeletons sitting upon dark stains reminds me that people had once lived here. My journey today takes me to the Hall of Emperors.
I stop at the face of my first reagent molded into a bronze bust, now green and eroding. His name erased by the assault of oxygen upon the surface of the metal. Only a dim memory of him remains in my mind. I recall how this all started and why I’m here in the first place.
A thousand years ago, when I won my first conquest, I had made a deal with the First Emperor. A risky one, but one of significant importance. We in the service understand the need for personal sacrifice for the greater good. I would donate my brilliant tactical mind for any grand conquest that needed it for a millennium, and when that millennium was over I would be granted the grandest retirement ever seen in the history of the empire. They would be sure to include any of my distant relatives and invite them to the affair. Knowing my indispensable value to the nation I accepted the deal and said goodbye to my husband and children and gave my body and mind to the empire, frozen in time until it is needed. As the first emperor’s rotten bust looks at me through soulless eyes, I felt for the first time anger towards the man. Doing something I never thought I’d do in a thousand years, I took my palm to the statue and shoved it off its platform. When it hit the floor there was no loud thud as I had expected, but a gentle plop as the rusted remains collapsed into a pile of green dirt.
I did the same to the many other emperors and empresses I had personally served under. Giving them a peace of my mind as I whacked their busts upon the ground. Skipping over those I had never heard of, the obscurity of their existence a worse punishment than what I was giving. Each impact with the ground a little louder as I neared the Diamond Empress, nine hundred years removed from the First Emperor. A woman so ruthless and steadfast that only now did I realize what terror I had wrought working under her wing. Perhaps her sins had been the catalyst for the empire’s downfall. But I could never know. The exact downfall of the empire was as forgotten as the eroded nameplates of the emperors within these halls. The fact that her bust sat at the end of the hall with no successors spoke volumes. Of all the emperors’ busts, hers was the only one not made of bronze, but true to her name, it had been carved out of an enormous diamond. Knocking it down like the others wouldn’t be enough to erase her memory, instead, I took the bust by the throat and left the room. I had a special place for her in mind.
My arms had grown weak from stasis and age. When humans used to command this facility I would be put through a strict regiment of physical therapy and strength training to get my strength up to par. Therapy had always been my least favorite part about waking up. Always eager to get to the conquest at hand, I would cut corners to speed time and get to the command center faster. Now, I could use a little more strength to haul the face of the last empress across the facility. Giving in to my strength, I sat down against a wall and rested. Closing my eyes for a quick nap.
A tremor shakes the corridor. Dust and pebbles fall onto my eyelids waking me up. Red lights on the walls light up pulse like the last heartbeats of a dying man. The auditory alarm system within my hall does not activate, but I could hear the whimpering of a distant alarm reverberating down the halls toward my destination. I don’t have long before my mechanical handlers seek me, calling for my aid in a war that by definition was impossible to have any victors. I pulled myself up and grasp the neck of diamond and make my way toward the Heart.
When I reach my destination the whimpers of the alarms are now a dull cry. The air here is thinner and smells of sulfur. Breathing within the halls had already been hard enough with my weak lungs, but back here, at the heart, noxious fumes had been building up as the equipment that powered the place corroded away into little holes. Before me a giant glowing ring the size of a small house. What was at the time the empire’s most advanced reactor that glowed as bright as the sun, was now an antique. A dim teal spark raced along the interior, spinning around and around. White sparks sputtered behind it reminding me of the shimmering trail of a firework as it launched into the sky. I looked around for something that could help me accomplish what I set out to do.
Down the halls, a clattering of metal marched growing louder and louder. My handlers following their scripts to pull me away from my distractions and back to the command center. I mustered my energy and began searching for something to help me out. I remember seeing a technician load fuel into the reactor man centuries ago through an inlet on the far side of the Heart. So I put one hand against the glass casing to support myself as I hobbled to the inlet. My other hand had its fingers constricted against the neck of the empress.
When I had reached the rear the clattering had crescendoed. I didn’t have much time left, nor air as the sulfuric gasses had now entered my lungs, making it a struggle to breathe. I wouldn’t die without accomplishing what I set out to do, and I sure as hell wouldn’t go back with them until my task had been accomplished. I reached for a dark metal plate against the backside of the torus. The fumes behind it shot out with a warm spout, hissing towards me directly into my eyes. With no sight, I began searching for a means to open the Heart.
The hissing had obscured the sounds of the metallic march, but only for a moment. When the handlers entered the room their clanking resembled that of a car crash: loud and piercing. I fumbled around as the sounds grew louder and the gases hotter when my hands contacted something. A lever. I pulled at it and prayed. At the same time, I felt the cold lifeless grip of a handler touch my shoulder.
An eruption of hot air shot out of the Heart throwing myself and my handler backward. I fell backward onto a heap of metal. When it began to move I realized that my handler broke my fall. I opened my eyes and sat up to see my work. The metal plate had opened up revealing a compartment, dull teal rays of light flickering through the cracks within the wall that separated the compartment from the core of the Heart. I stood up while my handler shuttered and trembled behind me. The empress’s bust lay between me and the fuel compartment. I limped towards it, holding my breath to keep whatever clean air it held contained. It did not take long for my handler to resume its pursuit.
My hand snatched the diamond neck, and a claw snatched my ankle. I lunged forward trying to break its grip but it held steadfast. I pulled again, this time yanking the machine forward. The handler gargled up some noises from its damaged vocal box, but I did not turn to face it. When I refused it pulled back. With one leg forward I fought against its tug. Barely able to hold my ground. My breath running low I rallied up whatever strength I had and hurdled the diamond bust into the fuel deposit. The bust flew through the air into the reactor. The deposit’s walls had been crippled by time and the diamond head ripped through them like a rock through wet paper. The Heart shuttered and the empress’s head floated in the center, melting away from the left side of her face to the right like candle wax until there was nothing left. My legs gave out and I opened my mouth, my lungs gasping on instinct for what little oxygen was down here. My handler pulled itself off the ground and began dragging me away, shutting the hatch to the fuel deposit as it took me.
Soon I would be in the war room covered in blood and lacerations as I gave pointless orders to my machine subordinates. I would spend the rest of my days here living off rations and half-recycled water. Doomed to command an army of ghosts and wander the corridors of the abyss, hiding from my handlers whenever another tremor shook the facility. But at least I knew I could die with one last victory beneath my belt, one that finally meant something to me. And when I lay there on my deathbed all alone, I’d finally get my retirement.