Chapter 1:

Return to Ganymede

Red Storm Over Ganymede


**Tristan**

I stood slightly behind Admiral Grace Nichols, Isul at my side, and watched the central screen of the Regina One’s bridge display Jupiter and its moon Ganymede, the seat of Imperial power. The sparkling sphere, crisscrossed by the lights of the bubble cities and gravity tubes, and framed by the swirling eddies of Jupiter, brought a deep sigh - whether of contentment or resignation, I could not say - to my lips.

Ganymede was both prison and paradise. It was my home, and yet knowing that in the future I would be largely confined to this moon by duties and responsibilities gave me pause. I would assume the throne on the eve of my second Jovian Revolution - roughly twenty four standard Terran years - a ceremony that was fast approaching.

But for now my Grandmother wore the crown, as she had the past ten years. Having to face her on the throne always gave me a twinge of anxiety. This encounter was especially unwelcome after the debacle that the training exercises turned out to be. There would be official explanations to present to the court, and then the truth behind closed doors.

Grace, Isul and I had worked out that we would tell the Citizens HoloNet News there had been an accident during the training exercises. We certainly had no plans to reveal that a Bio-droid had been at the heart of the incident. Mass panic was not something we wanted on our hands just yet. And I was certain the Uranians would trumpet any wrongdoing by a Bio-droid to the far corners of the Empire; Saints knew they needed no new ammunition.

Grace directed the ship back to the orbital drydock, a huge space station suspended over the capital, to begin the full repair process. I stood next to the Admiral, and when the ship had safely moored inside the drydock, I tapped the shipboard communications system to address the crew. I hated giving speeches, but even more I hated being thought of as an ungrateful prig by the crew who had sacrificed so much for me. “Officers and crew members of the Regina One, this is Prince Tristan. It has been a privilege to serve alongside you under trying circumstances. You have all carried out your duties with great honor, and I am most pleased that this crew,” I looked at Grace, “and their commanding officer performed their duties with polish and precision during our battle. Please carry on the good work, and thank you.”

The bridge crew clapped for me, and I gave a short bow. I could have sworn I saw one officer wipe away a tear. If my terrible speech was all it took, these folks really needed to receive praise more often.

Isul motioned me back, and the three of us set off down the corridors and back toward the hangar deck. Though the Regina One wasn’t back in fighting shape just yet, the deck crew had done a bang-up job repairing the Princeps, and I was eager to take my shuttle back down to the surface.

The crew we passed stopped and saluted, which I returned with a nod. When we finally arrived back at the hangar deck, I smiled as I saw the crew lined up on either side, forming a walkway and saluting as the three of us passed by and ascended the ramp into the shuttle. Once inside, away from the crew’s eyes, I finally felt myself begin to relax.

“They’re going to be buzzing for days after that little speech,” Admiral Nichols said as Isul settled into the pilot seat and I shrugged off my jacket and stretched.

“They’re a good crew. You should praise them more often, Admiral,” I teased.

“I’d rather you just come back and do it yourself,” she replied with a chuckle, before drawing me into a hug. “But seriously, take care of yourself, Tristan. The next few weeks aren’t going to be an easy time for you, but I know you’re up to the task.”

As we pulled away, I grinned. “Since you’re going to be stuck in drydock for a good month, and I know you got the invitation to the coronation, I had better see you there.”

“Can’t I just send a card?” she said. “You know I’m allergic to politicians.”

I wagged a finger. “Tut tut, Admiral. We expect dress uniform and good behavior.”

Grace rolled her eyes and whacked my arm. She then turned to Isul and said, “Thank you for all the work you did on the computer core. I doubt we would have made it back from this misadventure at all had you not been with us, Isul.” Grace jerked a thumb in my direction. “Take care of him, too.”

Isul swiveled in his chair, the ghost of a smile on his lips. “It is my primary function.”

Grace hugged me one more time, then squeezed Isul’s shoulder, and tromped down the ramp.

We waited in silence for a few moments before finally receiving clearance from drydock that we were cleared for departure. Isul took the controls, gently lifting the Princeps on its anti-grav booster as the hangar was depressurized, and we launched into space.

“You sure you’re okay to fly the ship? It’s been awhile since you had a tune-up, you know,” I said.

Isul maneuvered the ship past the Regina One, where we could still see laser burns in the hull of the ship. Viewing those made me want to get to the bottom of this mysterious Martian vessel more than ever. I would find out what was going on here. Whoever attacked us must not have realized that they were dealing with an extremely stubborn prince.

Isul interrupted my dark thoughts. “Safer than letting a prince who hasn’t been logging required simulator hours for his pilot’s license.” He favored me with a cheeky grin.

I tossed my feet up on the console again. “Just get us home. The sooner I get Nona Regina’s thrashing over with, the sooner we can all move on.” We cleared the bulk of the Regina One’s hull, and Ganymede loomed in front of us.

“What’s she got to be angry about? She wasn’t the one shot into space, and then almost killed at the hands of a maniacal Bio-droid,” Isul said.

I sighed and rubbed my hands over my face, feeling sticky. By Jove, I was ready for a true bath back on Ganymede, not the rubbish sonic showers the military ships used. “After my life has been threatened? You know she’ll bring up the issue of progeny again. ‘The line must continue,’” I said in a creaky imitation of her voice.

Isul’s face went blank. “Ah, well, a hammer does like its favorite nail.” He turned away from me and engaged the radio. “Catamitus Stellar Control, this is Princeps, requesting permission to land.”

The traffic control tower down in Catamitus answered shortly. “We read you, Princeps. You are cleared for landing in bay two. Welcome home, Your Highness.”

Isul angled the ship toward the moon, and the sight of vast Jupiter faded as we moved closer to the surface of Ganymede.

My family had ruled the Jovian Empire from this spot for over three hundred years. According to my Grandmother, my ancestors had come with the first colony ships in the twenty-second century, and emerged as the leaders of the Empire when the citizens of Jupiter annexed the colonies in orbit of Saturn. Saturn’s colonies had failed, falling into a precarious state during the Bio-droid uprising of the twenty-third century. We had rescued them, and joined together as the major power in the solar system.

I wished I could have taken some measure of pride in these accomplishments, these great feats of military and political might, but my own parents’ struggles were lost with all my memories prior to my first Jovian revolution. And with those memories, that history, I feared something important had been lost. How could a prince without a past be expected to lead into the future?

“You’re awfully quiet,” Isul said, taking his eyes briefly off the control board to sneak a look in my direction.

I tried to smile, but it probably looked like I was having gas. “Just thinking about the future.”

Isul placed a cool hand on my arm. “That bad, huh?”

I squinted one eye at him. “Don’t try to be all sweet. I’m still mad at you, remember? That whole blowing me into space thing?” There was no way I would let him off the hook so easily, or so I would lead him to believe.

Isul groaned. “I’m going to be punished forever for that, aren’t I?”

I leaned over and whispered in his ear. “Would you like that?” I could feel the heat rise to my cheeks, but didn’t pull away.

When Isul didn’t rise to the bait, I leaned in again and brushed my lips against his cheek. I didn’t wait for a response this time, and quickly retreated to my seat. Tense moments went by before I gave a nervous chuckle and said, “Sorry. Don’t gore me with the horns if you didn’t like it.”

Isul turned to me and said, with fervor, “I didn’t say I didn’t like it. It’s just … a lot to process. And if you’re teasing me, you know, that’s kind of low for you.”

My chest felt tight as I looked at Isul, his white hair a nimbus, lit from behind. “It’s no tease, Isul.” It felt strange to give voice to feelings I had held for so long. But our experience out in space reminded me how short time could be. Best to say things out loud.

My mouth was open to speak, when Isul blurted out, “Please, don’t. Don’t say that to me now.”

“You’d rather I lie about my feelings?” I spat back, hurt.

Isul sighed. “I’d rather you – we – are realistic. You’re destined for someone else. Someone human.” His eyes were shining.

“You know that’s only politics,” I said, my voice thick and my eyes stinging. “Dammit, Isul, I broke Imperial law so that I didn’t lose you. You’re the only one I care about having at my side.”

Isul clutched his chest, grasping a handful of fabric and twisting it. “You can’t afford to care about me. When you ascend the throne, I’ll only be a liability going forward.”

White-hot anger raced through me, and I felt my nails dig into my palms as I balled my fists. “Are you asking me to let you die? I need you, dammit. I’m not letting you get pushed aside or attempt some noble sacrifice for me again.”

The Capital of Catamitus filled our viewport, and the transparisteel dome over the city glowed faintly. As Isul got final clearance to enter the spaceport, he expertly guided the Princeps through docking bay two, and settled the ship onto the platform that would carry us into the main, oxygenated part of the city.

With a shudder, the platform began to move, carrying the Princeps with it. I seethed in my seat, unwilling to look at Isul for the moment. How could he be so daft about my feelings toward him at this point?

Workers scurried to secure the ship on the platform before giving us the all-clear to disembark. I looked at Isul. “I don’t want to fight with you,” I whispered. “We can talk about all of this later. Maybe with Winnie.”

Isul simply nodded, bobbing his antlers in acquiescence, though I was certain he still had plenty to say on the subject. I looked out of the viewport, and groaned as I saw the gathered press, along with a military escort to bring me back to the palace.

I tugged on my jacket and ran fingers through my hair to look at least semi-presentable, and really wished I could have had that bath before having to face the wolves. Isul lowered the boarding ramp, and I strode down.

“Prince Tristan, Prince Tristan!” several of the reporters yelled in a cacophony of irritating noise. Their camera drones were trained on me, no doubt transmitting live to half the stations of the HoloNet. “What happened out near the asteroid belt?”

“Did the Martians attack you?”

“Is it true you had to undergo a life-saving operation?”

“Was it aliens?”

I wore my best princely smile and stepped forward, holding up my hands for silence. Nona Regina had long ago taught me how to deal with the press. “The training exercise was simply marred by a minor ship malfunction. Nothing exciting. Now if you’ll excuse me, I really must get back to the palace.”

I nodded to my security detail, and they hustled me to an armored hovercar, blocking out the remaining questions regarding suitors and the upcoming coronation.

Isul slid into the plush seat next to me. “Very well done, Tristan.”

I suddenly felt exhausted. “Please tell me the palace didn’t schedule more interviews for me today. I just want a nap.”

“You’re clear except for the meeting with your Grandmother and the Lord Chancellor,” Isul replied as the security personnel filtered into the car and gave the signal to take off. The hovercar floated forward before speeding away from the hovercams and press.

I looked at Lieutenant Van, the musclebound head of Palace security, who sat across from me. “Anything interesting happen while I was away?”

The Lieutenant gave me a conspiratorial wink. “Nothing near as interesting as what happened out there. Is it true the Martians attacked, Your Highness?”

“So it would appear. The scans and reports still need to be vetted by Imperial Security, but it was bad enough Isul blasted me off in an escape pod,” I replied.

Van gave a low whistle and looked at Isul. “Looking forward to reading that report.”

The hovercar exited the spaceport, and joined traffic heading toward the center of the city. In the distance, I spied the soaring spires of the Imperial Palace, and could almost feel the chains of forced destiny clamping down on me.

Our driver navigated the sea of traffic with ease, and soon we were at the palace. The Palace was as old as the Empire itself, a landmark of our history. It was built in the twenty-fourth century in the Neo-classical style, recalling the great buildings of the twenty-second century. It was a round building, with a double ring-shape to echo the form of Catamitus itself. But at each of the cardinal points of the outer ring, soaring, fluted minarets rose toward the stars. And within the inner ring was a second building, containing the palace proper, full of ballrooms, elegant salons, and the offices and throne room of the Imperial Court.

The Lieutenant and his soldiers escorted Isul and me into the doors of the eastern entrance, but once we were inside the building, they radioed our presence to staff, and left us to our own devices.

I wandered down the main hallway, past holo-portraits of Imperial family members long-dead, and even a few scenes painted with ancient, costly oil pigments. Turning a corner, I exited the outer ring of the palace, and crossed the courtyard, awash in the color of blooming trees and shrubs, toward the stacked column that made up the inner ring, and my home. At one time, there had been many members of the Imperial Family who lived here, but now it was down to just Nona Regina and me.

Isul and I boarded a gravity tube and grabbed the handles before it whisked us upward toward the higher levels. I punched the controls for the twentieth floor and submitted a retinal scan to activate the controls to my private level. My sanctuary.

The doors of the gravity tube whooshed open softly, revealing a plush suite of rooms before me. My rooms took up the entire floor, with bedroom, private office, gym, bathroom, and room for Isul to work as well.

“Home, finally,” I groaned, falling down in my favorite chair, a battered, threadbare monstrosity that had belonged to my father.

Isul wrinkled his nose. “My olfactory sensors aren’t the most sensitive, but they do indicate the need for me to draw you a bath.”

“Hey, it’s not that bad!” I sniffed my underarms and shot Isul a pouty look.

Isul rolled his eyes, though I could see a smile tugging at a corner of his mouth as he walked into the bathroom and began working the controls to the bath. Soon, I shed my jacket and shirt, threw them across the back of my chair, then stepped out of my pants and stretched my tight muscles. It was definitely nice to be free of the uniform. And giving Isul an eyeful of what he could be enjoying never hurt.

I approached Isul from behind as he adjusted the bubble content of the bath and wrapped my arms around him. “Fancy joining me?”

Isul tried and failed to give me a withering look. “I have countless reports to make, and you’re scheduled to meet the Empress Dowager in,” he looked at the chrono on the wall, “A little over an hour. Certainly not enough time for these games.”

I shook my head at Isul’s refusal as he retreated to the other room, then groaned with pleasure as I stepped into the hot water and felt all my muscles tense for a moment, then spread into delicious relaxation. “I don’t ever want to leave,” I mumbled.

Isul reappeared in the doorway, having already changed his clothes to more the formal palace robes he preferred. “Sit up and lean forward,” he commanded. I obeyed, and Isul pulled a stool to the edge of the tub and sat down behind me.

“I didn’t know you wanted to do me from behind,” I whispered in my best sultry voice.

Isul snorted before he jabbed me in a hard, knotted muscle. I gave a sharp intake of breath as his hands worked over my back, every ounce of tension pouring out under his expert hands. He worked in silence for a few minutes, punctuated only by appreciative grunts from me.

“Had I known I would end up doing an entire staff’s worth of work for you – all done with your pithy commentary I might add – perhaps I should not have been so quick to jump for the memory transfer procedure.”

I twisted around and glowered at him. “Don’t even joke about that, Isul.”

Isul must have seen the stricken look on my face, because he quickly apologized. “That’s not what I meant. I think I’m just need a tune-up.”

I got up out of the bath and toweled off. “We should go see Winnie soon. You haven’t done a memory upload in over a month either.”

He simply nodded and laid out the clothes, complete with formal sash, that I was to wear. I fingered the gold material of the sash. “Isn’t this a bit much?”

“You could go in your underwear to see your Grandmother, but it is nice to dress up for the Lord Chancellor a bit,” Isul replied as he helped me shrug into the jacket and adjusted the sash across my chest.

“Saints help me get through this,” I muttered as Isul finished his adjustments and we stepped back into the gravity tube and rode it back down toward Nona Regina’s Office.

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