Red Storm Over Ganymede
Tristan looked like a caged Rhean tiger as he paced back and forth across the small space in the Princeps. I had tried calming him down over and over, but he was a tense bundle of nerves who raced to check his messages every time he heard a ping.
The Oracle and the Empress had allowed Chet and Silica to return to Enceladus and await further instruction on his approval as Consort, but we were trapped here on Oberon waiting for any kind of word to come across from the Order on whether or not Tristan had been approved.
Tristan started doing jumping jacks and push-ups to try and distract himself. “Jove-damned Uranians! This is probably just another mindscrew test of theirs to see if I’m going to crack from waiting around.”
“The twenty-four hours aren’t up yet, you know,” I answered. He was complaining about twenty-four hours while I hadn’t been off of the Princeps in almost three days.
It was difficult acknowledging that Chet was likely going to be a fixed part of our lives going forward. Even if I did recognize it was something that Tristan had to fulfill for his position and far beyond his control. But at the first sign of E-Ring use again, Silica and I were marching both of them to a closed-door rehab facility. All that hard work meant those boys were staying clean.
Just as Tristan was counting his fiftieth push-up, the door chime on the Princeps rang and he vaulted up. Tristan raced to the door, which whooshed open to reveal the Empress Dowager.
“Well?” Tristan asked, nearly breathless with anticipation. “Have you heard any word?”
The Empress smiled, though I did not think it reached her eyes. “You have been approved.”
Tristan let out a whoop of excitement and actually threw his arms around the old woman, much to her surprise, as she looked stunned and awkwardly patted him on the back. “Yes, well, there’s much to prepare. The Oracle has expressed interest in traveling to Ganymede to preside over the coronation, which I approve of wholeheartedly. We need a full expression of unity among the imperial factions right now, especially with the Martian threat looming.”
Tristan nodded, his whole body almost vibrating with excitement. It was infectious, this enthusiasm of his.
The Empress bade him farewell, saying they would talk more once we arrived back on Ganymede, though her smile faded when her eyes landed on me. I tried pushing it aside, knowing she had never approved of me, and bolted a smile on my face when Tristan clapped his hands on my shoulders.
“Oh, by the Red Storm, get us off this Jove-forsaken rock and take us home, Isul,” he said.
I was only too happy to oblige.
* * *
When we arrived back on Ganymede Tristan was swarmed by the HoloNet news drones at the spaceport, all eager for word of both his future consort and our trip to Oberon. Rumor was rampant right now, but I all but shoved Tristan into the hovercar waiting to pick us up. The news crews would simply have to wait for a royal statement, same as the rest of the citizens.
Work began in earnest on the coronation proceedings then. I was away from Tristan much of the time, helping set up key positions for the processional that would carry Tristan and Chet from the spaceport all around the central ring of the city, and then to the Imperial Palace. Once inside the throne room, Tristan’s consortship with Chet would be the final declaration of the Empress Regina, followed by their crowning by the Oracle as Emperor and Prince Consort.
All of this was to be transmitted live across the Empire in what was to be an imperial holiday. There would be celebrations in every major population center. Coronation days and weddings were always very festive occasions. Historical records showed much rejoicing at Tristan’s father’s coronation.
Silica and I would be in the background, helping where and when we could, getting the boys ready, making sure they looked ready for the holo-cameras. I accessed the current news polls to see who was highest ranking in the polls for consort, and shook my head in disbelief as the Duchess Abeth’s name still remained the top of the list.
For his part, Tristan finally looked relaxed despite the maelstrom of activity that constantly surrounded him. My heart clenched as I realized this was the new normal for us. More than ever, his time was not his own.
I had just returned to Tristan’s apartment bearing garment bags from the royal tailor, and could hear Tristan on comm system in the back room. He was in the middle of some kind of conversation with Admiral Nichols, I believed.
“Oh, I also finished reviewing your sensor records from the Princeps, but unfortunately there wasn’t much usable data left after the beating your ship took,” Grace said.
“Anything interesting?” I heard Tristan ask, hope in his voice.
Grace continued, “Like you said, the Martian cruiser didn’t match any known models in our records, and the outriders were old ships. But we found something quite interesting. Look here, and here,” she said, no doubt indicating some holo-image. “These look like something Martian engineers would come up with - bulky and ugly - but if I’m interpreting the scan data correctly, it indicates a deuterium power source.”
“Deuterium? Since when has the Republic used that for their ships?” Tristan asked, puzzlement in his voice.
Grace’s voice was low and flat, tinged with worry. “I wish I knew. Our lab is still analyzing all the debris fragments collected, so perhaps that will turn up more information. But if it is deuterium residue, then either they’ve gotten a hold of our engine schematics…or someone in the Empire sent it to them.”
Gooseflesh prickled my synthetic skin at the thought of someone in the Empire giving out data to the Martians. I stopped hanging the articles of clothing I had brought back, intent on listening now.
“That’s a deep gravity well you’re starting down, Grace,” Tristan replied, his voice grave. There was silence for a few moments, and I was about to walk into the room, before he sighed and continued, “But I suppose it matches with what happened to me three weeks ago. Is this channel secure?”
“Triple encrypted on my end. Yours?” Grace asked.
Tristan ran through the encryption sequence before continuing. “Isul tried to kill me after his last upgrade, Grace.”
My world blacked, then turned red at the edges as sharp pain stabbed at my head. I forced myself to continue listening, though.
“What? If this is some kind of joke, Tristan, I’m not laughing.”
“I wish it were. I’m transmitting the scoured footage now,” he said.
I heard a horrified gasp from Admiral Nichols, and a cruel simulacrum of my voice - flat, without life - saying that my primary function was to kill Tristan.
“My specialist has isolated the virus for now, but it took two weeks of memories with it, and - I know what you’re going to say, but it’s wrong - the virus was baked into the new body. No matter what I would have chosen, the Bio-droid I selected that day would have tried to kill me. Someone wants me dead or maimed, and twice they’ve used Bio-droids to try and accomplish that task.”
I screamed as the pain lanced through my head, blinding me to everything but a wall of red.
No. No. No. This couldn’t happen. I loved Tristan. Tristan was my whole world and I would never have done anything to harm him. I would rather be jettisoned into space.
But as I heard his desk chair clatter, I moved backward, my ocular sensors trying to look anywhere except Tristan’s face. They alighted on the workstation screen in the other room, and I saw the video looping over and over next to a window with Grace’s terrified visage.
My hands. Tristan’s neck.
“Isul, stop!” Tristan yelled. “It’s under control.”
I screamed again, and this time tears flowed down my face. I shook my head over and over and over again. “I-I said we shouldn’t have done this. I-I said I would p-protect you. I almost-” my movements were short, staccato bursts as I tried to indicate him with a shaking hand, “-k-k-killed you.” I wailed an angry, bitter note.
My memory core was melting down. I was dying. I couldn’t be trusted around Tristan.
“I have to leave,” I said, suddenly hyperfocused. “Must get away, mustn’t harm you.” I could feel the wall of red beginning to descend over my eyes, and now I knew the horror of what it meant.
I bolted for the gravity tube and jumped inside, barely waiting for the field to activate and catch me as I plummeted down and away from Tristan’s cries.