Arabella was awoken abruptly by a bright burst of light. That was saying a lot, since she was wearing a sleeping mask and had the blinds in her carriage drawn.
Bursting out of her cot - she really couldn’t describe the action as anything other than ‘bursting’, given the explosion of blankets and pillows - she bolted for the door of the carriage, joints creaking. She wasn’t made for such abrupt movements, not at her age, but the buzzing in her mind demanded immediate attention. They demanded attention.
Something is wrong, Arabella thought. Something is very wrong. His… his plans are not… something is wrong.
The light pouring out of the tower dazzled Arabella the moment she stepped out of her carriage, and shielding her eyes did nothing to abate the harshness of the sight. She was forced to her knees almost instantly, as if bowing to the tower, though her action came from pain rather than subservience.
She was not the only one on her knees. Virtually every human within sight of the tower was doubled over in agony, either clutching the sides of their heads, burying their faces in the dirt, or trying to look away. Arabella detected vomiting on all sides of her, but she’d not eaten enough to feel the stirrings of sickness in her own stomach. It was all in her head, and it was very vocal indeed.
THE SON OF A BITCH HAS INFILTRATED US, the voice of Arabella’s masters screamed, a pair of adult male tones contending for space in a single sentence. HE HAS USED HIS BASTARD BOOK TO SEE ME. HE KNOWS. HE KNOWS! WE CANNOT HIDE ANYMORE!
THEN WE’VE GOTTA MOVE QUICKER, the voice replied to itself. FETCH HER. GET HER NOW. WE CAN’T WAIT. WHO GIVES A DAMN IF SHE’S HURT -
SHE WILL NOT BE HURT! I WON’T ALLOW IT!
WE’RE ALMOST DONE, the voice soothed. ALMOST THERE. JUST GET HER HERE. CONTROL YOURSELF! IF WE BRING HER HE WILL HAVE TO COME!
YES, YES HE WILL! I KNOW THIS! I AM NO FOOL, PH -
The voices began to pull apart and break down, and their disjointed chatter made Arabella’s head hurt all the more. She opened her eyes, however, when she realized that the tower was now waxing in intensity, appearing again as a near-insubstantial thing of glimmering beauty… but different.
No, she thought. Not beauty. It’s horrible.
Arabella forced herself to her feet. Looking around, she saw that the accumulated armies of the Imperium - more had been gathering here daily - were, as one, incapacitated. Soldiers lay in crumpled heaps in the massive barricade surrounding the tower, their armaments cast aside with utter disregard for military decorum. Very few appeared to be standing, from what Arabella could see, and those on their feet were staggering drunkenly.
Arabella didn’t know what to do. She’d seldom felt so purposeless in life, so thoroughly attached to the puppet strings of someone else. She’d always controlled and been controlled - that was simply part of being a politician in the Imperium - but her body no longer felt like it belonged to her. It was, instead, a single, superfluous body part on some vast, grotesque beast, one that she could only watch from up close.
She didn’t know what to do. So she stared up at the tower.
Upon arrival three days before, Arabella had made a point never to look all the way up the tower. It was incredibly tall, for starters, and the light at the top of the tower was so brilliantly bright that she would be courting blindness if she tried. Everyone else in the army - General Landry, his subordinates, his soldiers, his support staff, everyone - had apparently come to the same conclusion. No one ever spoke of what might be at the top of the tower, beyond that gaping chasm in the sky; they simply ignored it.
But Arabella looked anyway. She didn’t know what else to do, after all, and this tiny act of rebellion seemed so gratifying in the midst of what would probably be the final few days of her life.
As Arabella - or anyone - might have predicted, the light blinded the counsellor, burning out her corneas. She never saw again. But she did get a quick look at the horror waiting at the top of the tower, and it burned her soul more thoroughly than simple blindness ever could.
At the top of the tower - It’s called the RCU, Arabella thought absently, though she had no idea why - floated a vast, orbular creature. As purely white as anything could ever claim to be, the creature was utterly, horrendously featureless, save for millions of strand-like tentacles that drooped out and away from its surface like poorly-combed hair. The tentacles seemed to terminate partway down the tower, only Arabella knew that they were still there, invisibly connected to a corresponding number of rats all across the planet. Its eyes and ears.
So white, Arabella thought, eyes sizzling. So white that I swear I see something purple right in the middle.