Red Storm Over Ganymede
After I left Tristan and his Grandmother, I took a brief detour to the kitchens of the Starflight, where a veritable army of chef droids were working to make hors d’oeuvres and pour tall flutes of aurum.
I did a sweep of the ballroom, the sensors in my antlers wonderfully free of any worrisome readings. When everything was clear, I signaled to the staff that they could announce the Crown Prince and the Empress.
A few other Bio-droids and I filtered to the back of the room to make more space in the center of the ballroom. My registration records search pinged several Bio-droids belonging to very prominent families from all across the Empire. The Empress had not been joking when she said she was gathering the very best. Suddenly, I saw a flash of gold from the Empress’s tiara and Tristan’s sash, and the crowd broke into wild applause as their rulers appeared on the dais above them.
It wasn’t often that I got to see Tristan and his grandmother from the perspective of the humans they reigned over. The Empress especially made few social appearances these days, as Tristan approached his majority. Whispers of approval filtered through the crowd commenting on everything from her spectacular gown to the access code to her genetic therapist. For my part, I thought Tristan looked very dashing and regal in his suit. The gold sash I had selected perfectly set off the ensemble, and made him appear every inch the polished prince.
The Empress gave a short speech before Tristan seated her on a throne and descended the stairs to join the people below. I skirted the edge of the ballroom, keeping an eye on Tristan and hoping that sobriety would be his key word for the night. Things had been strained between us since my last memory download, and I hated it. I knew that after what I had said to Tristan I had no business getting emotional and jealous. But tonight – seeing Tristan play his part as the golden child to drum up interest in marriage – was one of the few times I wished I could shut off my emotional subprocessor.
I ran my copy of Tristan’s dance card, and felt my gears grind as I saw the first name on the list.
Chet Lavigne, Baron of Enceladus.
Seeing Chet kiss Tristan’s cheek was almost more than I could take. I’d lived through their liaison before, and didn’t relish seeing a repeat performance. Chet and Tristan had lost touch after Tristan was sent to complete his military training with Admiral Nichols, and I thought it was one of the best things to ever happen to Tristan. When they were together, the two boys had fueled each other in an ever-downward spiral. Drugs, booze, sex, constant parties. I counted it the darkest time in Tristan’s life since the accident.
Admiral Nichols had pulled him out of that. She had not accepted his sloppiness and smart mouth, and held him accountable for his actions. It had taken a great deal of time for Tristan to stop hating the Admiral, and finally realize that her tough love had been a true favor. We all knew that Tristan was a better prince, and a better man, because he had been separated from Chet.
But as I watched them dance, my ocular sensors zoomed in to see Tristan’s flushed face and dazzling smile. Chet didn’t deserve to see the radiance of it. My only consolation was seeing the look of distaste the Empress wore while watching them dance. Rare was the occasion that she and I were in agreement.
After what felt an interminably long time, the waltz ended, and Tristan bade farewell to Chet before a statuesque brunette took his hand. I ran facial recognition software, and identified her as Larmina Vanlith. Vanlith Industries could certainly use the boost royal recognition could bring. Larmina Vanlith was set to inherit millions of credits of assets, but whether she could keep Vanlith Industries afloat, only time would tell.
She took his hand, and Tristan moved easily from being led by Chet to leading Larmina across the dance floor. I risked a glance up at the Empress Dowager, and this time saw a look of approval cross her face. The Empress’s favoritism toward a traditional union for Tristan was plain to see for anyone who chose to look.
As Tristan spun Larmina across the wooden parquet, I stalked the edges of the room to keep an eye on them. Sensor data flowed through my antlers and into my central processor. I also scanned for artificial pheromone usage, as the substance was banned in the Empire but continued to make it into society engagements. I would certainly not let anyone use it on Tristan.
I took my eyes away from the pair for a nanoclik to gaze out the windows of the Starflight. We had left orbit of Ganymede, and the ship began to enter the orbit of Jupiter. The Red Storm was just visible on the gas giant’s horizon, and I let myself get lost in the swirling storm that seemed to mirror my own heart.
Being noble about my fate in Winnie’s lab was all well and good, but when I saw a preview of Tristan’s future without me, my emotional subprocessor contracted. It was a novel experience for me.
I turned away from the Red Storm and back to Tristan. He still danced with Larmina. I studied her closely, turning the full force of my sensors on the woman. Everything checked out until the sensors pinged on something metallic on her leg. It was hidden beneath the dress, and the program that ran the fabric’s twinkling subroutine prevented my antlers from getting a clear reading on what it was.
But I would be damned if I let myself take any more chances with Tristan’s life. I marched out onto the wooden floor and wove my way between dancing couples toward Tristan and Larmina. I was awash in righteous anger that someone would have the audacity to try and attack Tristan even in the presence of his own Grandmother.
I reached them, and rudely jerked Tristan and Larmina apart. “Step back, miss.” My voice was cool and authoritative.
My thermal sensors registered Larmina’s blush of anger as she glared at me. The music continued playing, but an ever-widening circle of people surrounded us, eager to see a confrontation. “How dare you, Bio-droid. On what authority do you meddle?”
I stood to my full height, which dwarfed her with my antlers. “I answer to none but the Prince, and my concern for his safety is paramount. You have a device strapped to your leg, miss, which our sensors cannot identify.” Smug triumph at catching someone in the act who was trying to harm Tristan shot through my voice, and all my systems hummed with pleasure.
Tristan’s eyes were shadowed, however, when I looked over at him for confirmation. “Is this true, Miss Vanlith?” he asked, his voice neutral.
Larmina Vanlith stood ramrod straight and openly glared at Tristan. “Do you always allow your Bio-droids to plague your social appearances, Your Highness?”
Tristan arched a lazy eyebrow at her. “When it concerns my possible safety, and citizens not disclosing metal devices strapped to their legs?”
Twin spots of red burned on Larmina’s cheeks. “You want to know? Fine.”
She pulled her skirt open at the slit, and my metal heart sank as a nerve stimulator was revealed embedded in the flesh of her leg. “I doubt my old riding injury will be much of a threat to Imperial Security, but please, feel free to scan it and verify.”
Tristan nodded wordlessly to me, and my antlers scanned the device, which proved it to be exactly what Larmina Vanlith had claimed. My head fell.
Tristan’s spoke with the flat tone he used when he was trying to bottle his anger as he addressed Larmina, and didn’t even gaze in my direction. “I’m very sorry about this, Miss Vanlith. I offer our most sincere apologies, and another dance.”
“No thank you, Highness. I’ve had quite enough of being embarrassed and paraded in front of the nobility tonight.” She spun on her heel and marched off the dance floor.
I stood there dumbstruck as Tristan gestured for the musicians to continue playing and stalked off the dance floor in the opposite direction of Larmina. I trotted after him, and when we passed through the doors that exited the ballroom, Tristan rounded on me.
“Isul, what were you thinking?” he yelled.
I longed to admit that I wasn’t thinking. That I just reacted out of jealousy. That I was thinking how much she didn’t deserve him.
“I was just looking out for your security,” I mumbled.
“By embarrassing me in front of two hundred citizens of the highest echelons of the Empire?” Tristan asked. His face burned with heat, his breathing rapid.
Anger overrode my systems. “I thought you didn’t care what they thought of you?”
“That was before the Jove-damned Council pushed me into a corner! Now I don’t get a choice about whether or not I get to care. If I want to keep the Empire from splintering apart, caring about what those old bats think is pretty much all I get to care about,” he said as he slumped against a wall and sunk down, his face buried in his hands.
I stood there in the awkward silence before he added, “And that was before you asked me to let you die. Without you around, their good opinions are the only things worth courting.”
My anger and jealousy dissipated like a thin atmosphere. I stared at Tristan, my heart warring with what was best for him and my deep held desire to not leave him behind in pain. I sat down next to Tristan and placed a hand on his knee. “You only need to be yourself, and their good opinion will surely follow.”
He slumped sideways, his head hitting my shoulder. “You know that your approval is all that matters to me in the end, don’t you?” he whispered.
“Don’t let Admiral Nichols hear you saying that.”
Tristan looked at me, his blue eyes swimming with light. “Don’t try to joke your way out of this, Isul. You don’t get to joke your way out of my feelings this time.”
My hand traced a circle on his knee. “I don’t wish to engage in this circular argument again, Tristan.”
“Then respond properly for once. I’m in love with you, Isul.”
I wanted to jump up, lift Tristan, and spin around until we both collapsed. But I didn’t. I couldn’t be that selfish. “I’m just a … a thing, Tristan. You can’t be in love with me.”
Tristan gave a short, sharp bark of laughter. “You’re the most real thing in my life, Isul. I know in that mess of processors and servomotors you have real emotions. So humor me this once, dig them out, and tell me how you truly feel.”
“You know my feelings,” I said quietly. “Why state the obvious?”
“What if I told you I needed to hear them out loud?” Tristan pressed. “A few words from you can give me the strength to go back out there and play this stupid game, knowing that what we have at the end of today and every day is real.”
I broke eye contact with him. “You’re asking me to hurt you, Tristan; my programming prevents that.”
He shifted position, kneeling in front of me as I sat on the ground. “What if I told you I’m okay with being hurt, so long as it’s in service of something real?” Tristan’s voice was thick with emotion.
I met his gaze again to see his eyes wet. “Even if I cease my existence in the next weeks?” I asked.
Tristan nodded. “Even then, Isul.”
I knew I was making a stupid mistake, giving in to him like that. But I had always been weak toward Tristan’s desires, and if it gave him the courage to go back out to the party and forge the life he would need to live when I was gone…well, then I spoke the words with no regret. “Then, Prince Tristan, I have been, and will always be your friend, and no matter how long my life may last, you will always be the love of it.”