Red Storm Over Ganymede
Our time on Titan came to a swift end. Breton and Abeth promised we would see each other again soon at the coronation. I was honestly shocked Grandmother was coming all the way to Oberon. It had been years since she’d visited the Uranian Theocracy. This meeting must have been of the utmost importance to her.
Oberon, as seat of the Oracle, the head of their order, was home to the Theocracy’s largest monastic settlement and their advanced gene laboratories and cloning operations. The Jovian Empire had inherited most of our cloning technology from the Uranians, who had developed gene manipulation into an art form over their centuries of relative isolation.
The Oracle of Oberon claimed to see all life in a great circle formed by the rings of Uranus. As Bio-droids were not human, and therefore not visible in the Oracle’s sight, the Oracle’s predecessors had long ago deemed them abominations and forbade Uranians from possessing the androids.
The Uranians, funnily enough, didn’t view clones as any sort of abomination. The Saints, revered by all in the Theocracy, were the original seventeen survivors of the first Uranian settlement. They had survived by cloning themselves until help arrived, and over time these seventeen became venerated. They became the Generational Saints, so called because once in each generation they were reborn as new clones. Nona Regina was the fifth generation clone of Saint Regina, a fact I often felt uncomfortable with.
Perhaps it was that I’d lost the memory of growing up with all of this, or perhaps it was the poor way they treated Isul, but these days I held little love for the Uranian segment of the Empire.
We were met on the landing pad by the blue-green robed guards of the temple complex. “State your business here,” one of them said as he held an electrode-tipped staff.
I stepped forward. “I am Prince Tristan, Emperor-elect of the Jovian Empire. I seek an audience with the Oracle.” The words were practiced, and given to me directly by my grandmother.
The guard nodded. “You are expected, Highness. You, the Baron, and the Princess may pass, but your abominations must stay behind. They are not permitted to sully the sanctums of our temple.”
I resisted the urge to punch the pompous guard in the throat, for surely Isul and Silica had done more in their brief lives to deserve merit than these fools had in decades. But I turned to Isul and clasped his hand. “Wait with Silica and the ships. We shouldn’t be long.”
“I don’t like sending you off to face whatever this is without me,” Isul whispered, throwing glares in the direction of the guards.
I tried to put on a brave face, though my insides were churning. “I’ll be fine. What’s the worst that could happen?”
“Denial of your succession?” Isul suggested unhelpfully.
I waved him off. “It’s not going to come to that.”
Isul looked down at his feet. “Just promise me you’ll be careful, and that you won’t get separated from Chet. Much as I dislike him, you’re better off together instead of being picked off separately.”
“Deal,” I replied before the guards motioned us forward. We started off toward the edge of the canyon, and I looked back over my shoulder at Isul, who held hands with Silica and looked like he was about to cry.
Steps carved in the stone led down the side of the Momur Chasma, the seat of the Order’s power, into a large central plaza below. Robed figures from the different classes wandered among the biosphere, enjoying rays of artificial sunshine. I heard animated discussions over theology, and resisted reacting to the whispers that seemed to follow in our wake as people recognized me.
A large building loomed ahead, and as we grew closer I saw it was a ziggurat. I recognized it from holos as the House of Light, the largest temple in the Order, and their de facto headquarters. I had always jokingly called it the House of Lies, though never in Nona Regina’s presence.
The entrance plaza was lined with more of the guards, and I tried to tamp down my rising anxiety as we passed beneath their raised pikes.
At the the end of the line stood Nona Regina, this time arrayed in the greens and blues of the Theocracy’s flag.
“Welcome to the House of Light, Prince Tristan and Baron Lavigne,” she said as she stepped forward and presented Chet and I with necklaces, the traditional greeting gift.
Chet was speechless even being in Grandmother’s presence, so I said the traditional reply, “We are honored to let the light of the universe touch the dark spaces.” The light of the universe, as spoken by the Oracle anyway.
Chet and I followed Grandmother up a funicular to a private salon always kept for visiting dignitaries. When we were finally alone, Nona Regina dropped the cool, collected persona. “I had hoped for the Princess Lashell as a dark horse candidate, but alas, here we are,” she said.
“You’ll get used to it,” I told Chet, who again looked dumbstruck at not only being spoken to by the Empress, but being verbally backhanded by her as well.
Nona Regina circled Chet like a predator. “Well, Baron Lavigne, unfortunately you can’t birth Tristan’s seed but you seem to have adequate genetics to produce a healthy heir via genetic surrogacy.”
“Nona!” I yelled.
She continued on as if I had not shouted. “We’ll need blood samples, of course, to verify your identity, genetic history, and of course to make sure you’re clean from E-Ring. I haven’t forgotten you were the acquaintance who got Tristan hooked on that drug.”
Chet’s face grew very red. “I’m clean, Your Eminence.”
“You understand our need to be sure, however. Becoming a royal consort isn’t like taking some strung-out waif home after a sweaty night in a nightclub.” Her voice and demeanor were icy. “You will have to represent this dynasty for years to come, and we need to be sure you’re capable of that.”
I raised a skeptical eyebrow. “So you’re going to have the Oracle look into our future?”
Nona Regina tore her eyes away from their critical examination of Chet. “Among other things, yes. If this boy’s future intersects yours in a poor manner, it risks the Order not approving the engagement, but also your future as Emperor.”
I seethed that she talked about Chet like a piece of furniture who couldn’t hear every critical word. “How about addressing the person you’re insulting, Grandmother.”
Nona Regina turned to Chet. “Very well. Baron Lavigne, at this juncture you are still an unknown liability to Tristan assuming the throne. Princess Lashell would have been the best choice for approval by the Order, but you’re probably the best in bed, so that’s likely why you’re here. Tristan has a history of making most poor choices with his genitals.”
“And this conversation is officially over,” I said, stepping in front of Chet. He didn’t deserve the abuse that I dealt with from her. “Just tell us when we need to meet with the Oracle and get this damn thing over with.”
“The Oracle meets with you,” she replied. “He hasn’t descended from the Room of Visions atop the Tower in several days, so the rings must be particularly receptive to cosmic rays.”
I groaned and began pacing. “So we’re expected to just wait around here until he descends from on high to dictate our future?”
“A bit more respect for the Voice of the Cosmos, Tristan,” Nona Regina snapped.
My head ached as I thought of the interminable wait. “Come on, Chet. Let’s find out if there’s anything worth seeing on this rock.” I stormed out of the salon. Chet executed a quick bow to Nona Regina before trotting after me.
I moved quickly, looking for open space. I needed air, and found an abandoned terrace on one of the ziggurat’s levels. It afforded a view of the plaza below, and in the distance I could see the lights of the bubble cities flowing like a river down the Momur Chasma. I stood at the edge and leaned on the short wall before I took several deep, calming breaths as Chet rubbed my back.
He murmured, “I know you said she was scary, but I nearly shit myself back there.”
I knew my face was scarlet. “I’m so sorry, Chet. I want to say you’ll get used to it, but that’s cold comfort at best, and I wouldn’t blame you if you ran the other direction.”
Chet’s hand clenched my shirt. “No way. This is your hour of need, and I would never abandon you like that. I gave my word I’ll stand by you, and I mean it.”
I felt touched by Chet’s words. “Thank you, that means a great deal to me.”
“Even if you don’t love me, I’m going to be here for you,” Chet said.
I stepped back from the wall and look at Chet. “How did you know?”
Chet patted my hand. “I’ve known you for years, Tris, and was your boyfriend for several of those. I recognize that look you give your Bio-droid.”
I sucked in a breath. “And you’re still here?” Warmth blossomed in my chest toward Chet.
He shrugged. “Does it bother you that I know? I mean, I’m okay with being the other man.”
I shook my head. “No, it doesn’t bother me per se, but I’m amazed that you’re okay with it.”
“Maybe you’re not the only one who did a little bit of growing up,” Chet said, and kissed my cheek.
The door behind us opened, and Princess Lashell walked out onto the terrace, surprising both of us. I hadn’t expected her to be here as well, though it was her home. “The Empress sent me to get you. We just received word that the Oracle will be down from the Room of Visions this evening and can meet with you then.”
I eyed Lashell. “So, any tips for my meeting, Princess?”
A smirk tugged the corner of her mouth. “Be respectful, but don’t bother trying to lie. The Oracle sees all.”
I sincerely hoped that wasn’t true.