Chapter 16:

Tested by the Order

Red Storm Over Ganymede


**Tristan**

I exhaled as I stepped into the ring. We were gathered again in the pleasure garden, but this time the Order had set up a fighting ring. They weren’t uncommon sights in the seedier clubs and the Warrens, and plenty of the nobility enjoyed watching a good fight. But I was more than a little surprised to see one here in the middle of the Order of Oberon’s sacred garden.

I almost had to laugh, “Are they going to pray me to death?”

Nona Regina grasped my arm in a vice-like grasp. “They will set their strongest warrior against you, Tristan. This is a test of your endurance and strength. The Order may be known for Saints and scholars, but they also hone the physical body as well.”

Chet kissed my cheek and pushed me further into the ring. “Good luck, handsome.”

The Oracle appeared at the other end of the ring, a huge woman walking beside him. I gulped, suddenly afraid as my cockiness drained away. Because as they drew closer, her face registered a fuzzy memory.

Saint Arturia. The Saint of Warriors.

“No spacing way,” I breathed and turned to Nona Regina. “They’re going to make me fight the reincarnation of the woman who invented Alokir?” The most deadly hand-to-hand combat style ever invented, forms of which were taught to all who served in the Jovian military.

The woman’s muscles rippled as she stepped into the ring. “I wasn’t born with the knowledge of my predecessor, Prince Tristan, just as your Grandmother the Empress was not born knowing how to rule exactly like Saint Regina.”

But they both had genetic propensity for such a thing, which made them deadly good at following their Generational forebears.

The Oracle stepped into the ring. “While we await the results of your physical examination, Prince Tristan, we thought it would be a good idea to test your…reflexes and hand-eye coordination.”

“By subjecting me to a brutal beating?” I shot back.

The Oracle’s sightless eyes narrowed and his face grew cold. “No, by allowing you to show that your military service was not a waste of time.”

Well, that certainly made it personal; I would have to make sure to do Grace proud. I eyed Arturia. I had faced opponents about her size before, but never gotten a resounding victory. Still, I wasn’t a quitter, and would certainly give it my best shot.

Arturia and I both donned the shock gloves and foot wraps. They were dusted with alokir powder, designed to cause short-term muscle paralysis whenever it made skin contact. A couple of good hits with the gloves on bare skin and you could take someone out. Overdo it, however, and they could easily end up in the med bay. Alokir was all about the controlled use of force - enough to disable your opponent, no more.

Isul and I had seen twisted versions of these matches down in the Warrens, street brawls where the loser was hit with so much paralytic they stopped breathing. Nobody rushed them to the medical facilities.

“We’ll go until the other is disabled,” Arturia said. We bowed to each other, and the match began.

We circled each other for long, tense moments. I studied Arturia. Perhaps I had more upper body strength, but swallowed when I saw her muscular legs. Any kicks she landed with those could end the match.

I went in for a quick jab, but she blocked, and snapped her hand against my open side. I instantly felt the numb coolness tingling there as the paralytic worked its way in. Had she been a few inches higher, she would have gotten my diaphragm and I would be wheezing on the floor. I jumped back and reassessed my option. We circled again, and this time she came in, angling for my arm or shoulder, no doubt with the intention of deadening my arms and preventing me from fighting back.

I dropped to the floor as her hit grazed my exposed back. The paralytic tingled, but I pushed through and shot out my leg to trip her up. Arturia jumped backward, but not before my foot wrap hit her right leg, and though the paralytic in my back was giving me trouble taking a full breath I silently cheered as I saw her leg crumple.

“I can continue,” Arturia announced as she flipped herself back up, this time standing on only one leg. I watched in horror as the muscles bunched in her good leg, and she used it to propel herself upward, then used her hands to catch herself as she somersaulted across the floor.

This woman was an absolute beast! I had never seen someone come back from one full leg being hit by the gloves. When she got to me, her hands clamped around my shoulders. I instantly felt my arms go dead, but using the last of my power I pushed the gloves directly into her chest and abdomen. She spluttered backward and collapsed as I did the same.

“I call the match a draw,” the Oracle’s voice rang out. “Both contestants performed admirably.”

I looked over at Arturia as she struggled to rise. “She needs medical attention first,” I said.

The medics rushed to Arturia’s side and injected her with the counter-agent for the paralytic. I breathed easier as her breathing eased and returned to normal. Then they were at my side, the cool round circle of a hypodermic spray pressed against my arm and the icy sensation as it injected its contents into my arm.

Slowly at first, then more quickly, sensation flowed back into my deadened limbs. I risked a look to back where Chet and Grandmother stood. He smiled and waved, and she looked not completely disappointed, so it must have gone at least somewhat okay.

When the med-techs were finished with their examination, Chet rushed to my side and placed a hand onto my still-sweaty chest as he helped me up. “You were incredible! I mean, I knew you learned a lot in the military, but damn! Remind me to not meet you in a dark alleyway.”

I grinned. “You too could have had this training, bad food, and grimy sonic showers if you had joined the military.”

“I wouldn’t have lasted a day. I don’t do well when my blood alcohol level gets too low, remember?” he added as we walked back toward Nona Regina.

Nona Regina looked me over. “I’m glad to see your time with the Admiral was perhaps not a complete waste after all,” she said. I knew it was as close as I would get to a compliment from her. I had just come to a draw with one of her contemporaries, so she had to acknowledge that.

* * *

I cleaned up from the fight, and we progressed into a lecture hall, several hundred seats ascending amphitheater-style from the floor.

The Oracle stepped onto the platform and waved his hands outward. “Here, we shall test your knowledge of the Empire and its history. For how can a ruler rule who has no knowledge of his subjects?”

I mentally cursed. Here was one of those parts where it would have been way, way easier to pass if I remembered anything before fourteen. But I trusted Isul’s reteaching, all the hours we had spent together drilling names of moons, nobility, industrial leaders, political leaders, and even the tactical information we had garnered from the Martians.

My trust in Isul would get me through.

The Oracle stepped off the platform and another Uranian acolyte stepped forward. He had a hawkish stare as he looked at me through the glass over his eyes. I could see him queuing up a program.

“This series of questions is designed to make sure you have an adequate understanding. The questions are adaptive, and will probe deeper in areas where the program has not received sufficient correct answers,” he said, before making a twisting motion in the air that I recognized as starting the program.

The lecture hall’s holo-projectors deployed then, filling the platform with a huge image of the solar system.

“First, delineate the territories controlled by the Jovian Empire, Martian Republic, and Uranian Theocracy.”

Hah, that was easy. I jumped up onto the platform and circled the rocky inner planets as Martian territory, followed by the gas giants as Jovian/Uranian territory, then to be extra smart-aleck, marked the asteroid belts and beyond Pluto as neutral territory.

The questions got progressively harder and forced me to dredge up faces and names I hadn’t thought about in years. The leaders of the clone-only city on Triton (identifiable only through clothing, as the whole city was made up of clones of five people), the capital of the Martian Republic (Olympus Mons), the official date of the Terran Diaspora (2243), and on and on, the questions getting harder and harder until I was sure I was missing more than I got right. I was good in knowing the nobility, but weak in non-political businesses. My knowledge of Mars was as good as what the military knew, but due to my distaste for the Uranians my knowledge of them wasn’t nearly as good as it should have been.

Finally, after several hours, the holo-projectors shut down.

The acolyte reappeared. “The computer’s final tally is seventy-one percent correct, Prince Tristan. A passing grade, but hardly a good one.”

I risked a look back and Nona Regina, who sat tight-lipped in one of the lecture hall chairs. I wondered how much better than me she had done, and how much she was cursing my lack of Council meeting attendance right now.

“By Jove those were hard questions,” Chet said as we left the room for an afternoon tea break set up on the Terrace. I wished I could have just opted out and gone to lay down or talk to Isul, as I was sure the break was not simply that, but most likely another chance to be studied like a lab animal by the Oracle and his cronies.

The terrace was decked out in colorful hangings, cushions, and low tables. As we sat again where I had confessed to Chet yesterday that I loved someone else, I spied the Princeps in the distance and wished I could just run away.

The Oracle’s raspy voice snapped me back to reality. “So, Prince Tristan, how long have you and the Baron Lavigne known one another?”

And here was the true purpose of the shared repast. I plastered my most winning smile on and looked into the sightless eyes. “We met when I was sixteen, Excellence.”

A wolfish grin appeared on the Oracle’s face. “Ah, yes, if memory serves me correctly the HoloNet news seemed to run a story about a very wild night out together.”

I winced. The Oracle wasn’t wrong - Chet and I had gone through three different clubs that night in an E-ring-fueled haze. The last place we visited ended up on fire, which cost the Imperial Treasury thousands of credits to repair and pay off.

But not before the damn HoloNet News ran their piece the next morning.

“Perhaps not the most auspicious way to meet one’s future consort,” I said, giving Chet a knowing grin as if it was all just some silly old misunderstanding.

Chet took this cue to begin speaking, “Those youthful indiscretions are long past. We’re much more committed to our engagements these days.”

“And Baron Lavigne, what exactly have you been doing these last few years?” the Oracle asked. “We don’t get all the news from Ganymede out here, but the last article referencing you has photos of you on an Triton beach entangled with a man who is clearly not Prince Tristan.”

I saw Chet’s cheeks color. The article in question was only a couple of months old. Chet cleared his throat, “Prince Tristan and I only recently reconnected.”

It was almost imperceptible, but I was sure I saw the Oracle trade glances with Nona Regina.

“And this connection, is it strong enough to weather the scrutiny this…pairing will take when it becomes public?” the Oracle asked.

“With all due respect, Excellence, my life has been a spectacle ever since I rejoined it after the accident that wiped my memories. We’re both used to dealing with more than our fair share of attention,” I answered.

The Oracle still wore a skeptical look, but gave a slight nod. “Very well, Prince Tristan. All that is left is the test of the Spirit.”

“This is where your crystal ball looks into my future?” I said.

Nona Regina nearly went apoplectic. “Tristan!”

The Oracle, however, looked nonplussed. “No, Prince Tristan, this is where your choices - the ones that have led you to this point - determine your worthiness to lead the Empire.”

* * *

The Room of Visions was dark as we entered. It took several long moments for my eyes to adjust to the low light, but when it did I saw a room with a series of cushions set around a central crystal lamp that was the only light source in the room.

“Please, Highness, take the seat opposite me,” the Oracle said. He and I were the only ones present this time, Nona Regina and Chet being forced to wait outside due to disturbances in ‘ring vibrations’ or some such nonsense.

I settled on the plain cushion. The room was downright spartan after the opulence in the rest of the ziggurat. “Will this take very long?” I asked.

“It depends on how many variables in your future the rings can pick up on,” the Oracle said as he turned up the light from the crystal lamp.

I snorted, and the Oracle raised an eyebrow. “I know you are an unbeliever, but I assure you my telepathic clairvoyance has proved beneficial to your Grandmother, and your father, on many occasions.”

A sharp intake of breath accompanied the revelation that my father had visited the Oracle before. I clenched my fist. “So beneficial that you couldn’t warn him about the bomb that blew up his ship after the peace talks?” I spat.

The Oracle did not rise to my bait, and instead simply sat down on the cushion. “He did not visit me before those events, I am sorry to say. Perhaps the rings would have given me foresight if he had.” The Oracle held my gaze with his sightless, milky eyes over the top of the warm light from the crystal. “Despite what you may think, Prince Tristan, I am dedicated to the good and glorious future of the Empire.”

I bit my tongue before I spat out The good of the Empire that you can control through your so-called visions. But it would gain me nothing to further provoke the Oracle’s ire. I took a deep breath, held it for a count of five, then let it back out again slowly. I had to protect knowledge of Isul’s memories.

“I’m ready whenever you are,” I said.

He nodded. “Stare into the crystal lamp, and empty your mind. I will give you five key words to focus on, and use the rings to focus in on your future based on the images. The first word is Duty.”

Images snapped into my brain. Serving in the military under Admiral Nichols, the sense of accomplishment it gave me, my desire to make a difference for the good of the Empire.

“Family.”

Isul, Nona Regina, Chet, Grace, holos of my parents. A young girl who looked familiar, but who I could not place. A bewildering sense of loss at having lost the memory of it all. The hope that it could be grown again from the little I had left.

“Truth.”

I tried to hold back as much as possible, but images of Isul slipped through. Our shared kiss in the Stardome club, images of his 3.0 body assaulting me after the memory transplant. Anxiety over separation from Isul when we were discovered.

“Love.”

Isul dominated these thoughts, followed closely by Chet and Grace. Even Nona Regina came through; in her own callous way, I thought she did love me. Hope for a brighter future where different love was celebrated.

“Empire.”

The Regina One sailing through space followed by hundreds of other military spacecraft, images of my parents from the old HoloNet News holos, Nona Regina sitting on her throne. The Firebird clutching Jupiter and Saturn in its talons. But also manacles, prisons, the feeling of suffocation.

The light in the room dimmed again, and I opened my eyes. Across the crystal from me the Oracle sat, his face impassive and unmoving, though his eyelids twitched as one who was in a deep dream. I was unsure what to do, so I sat as long as possible, until my legs grew numb and I had to stand.

When I stood, it seemed to awaken the Oracle from a trance. “Thank you, you may go, Prince Tristan,” he rasped.

“You’re not telling me if I passed or not?” I asked.

He shook his head, an almost imperceptible motion. “No. The images require time for sorting and cataloging. Give us twenty-four hours to interpret them, and we will have a decision.”

Steward McOy
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