Red Storm Over Ganymede
I practically chewed my lip off with worry over Isul. I tried tracking him via the horns, but that only led me to cast-off, broken pieces in the palace garden. I tried Winnie’s, but she had no luck tracking him down yet either. She said she was working on some new method that would let her find him, though, and promised to let me know when she had anything.
For Grace’s part, at the very least she didn’t say, “I told you so.” She was concerned, and wanted an update the moment she got on the ground.
But I didn’t have time for this. Lord Mayor Marcus’s office was constantly sending new requests and documents that needed approval, and I had no idea what to do with any of them. Isul had handled all that work. Finally, as the messages became more desperate, Grace took a shuttle down and began helping me herself, all while I continued my search for Isul.
But I turned up nothing.
I thought about reaching out to Chet, seeing if Silica might be able to find him, but it was one thing for Chet to know about my feelings for Isul, and another thing entirely to open him up to the whole sordid details of the memory transfers. No, I didn’t trust him with that kind of information just yet.
The evening prior to the coronation arrived. Isul had been missing for four days, and I began fearing the worst. Protocol was to report missing Bio-droids to Biodyne, and their recovery teams could track them down. But that didn’t feel like much of an option either.
So when Nona Regina summoned me to her office that evening, I was in no mood to go. Grace had gone for the day, however, and there was nothing else to catch up on that I could use to hold Nona Regina at bay, so I shrugged on a jacket and made my way to her office.
She sat at her throne-like desk, the perfect image of elegant composure. Laid out on the desk were an assortment of foods, a pitcher of aurum, and two goblets.
“Sit, eat something,” she began, gesturing at the food. “If I know you, I know you’ve probably forgotten to eat all day. Can’t have you fainting halfway during the ceremonies tomorrow.”
I was about to refuse, but my stomach betrayed me with a loud gurgle and I sat down opposite her. I filled my plate with the sweetmeats and other delicacies she preferred and began eating in silence.
“Are you ready for tomorrow?” she asked, her hawk-like eyes bearing down on me.
I shrugged in an attempt to appear nonchalant. “As ready as anyone ever is for something like this, I suppose.”
She nodded and sipped her aurum. “You might be interested to know your father said much the same thing the night before he was crowned.”
I met her gaze. “I wish he was here.”
“Things would be very different if he were.”
She filled my goblet from the pitcher, then raised her glass. “To absent family.”
“Absent family,” I mumbled, and thinking of Isul, drained the goblet.
Nona Regina continued picking at her food. “Any word from the Baron Lavigne? I checked with the spaceport, and his ship hasn’t arrived yet.”
I shook my head, which suddenly felt a bit fuzzy. One more person to worry about must have been more than I could handle. I reached for the pitcher to refill my goblet, but my hand slipped and knocked it over, sending the golden liquid cascading over Nona Regina’s desk and down the sides like a waterfall.
“Damn, I’m sorry,” I said as I got up to clean it up. But my body wouldn’t respond, and suddenly, instead of moving upwards my body was falling off the side of the chair. I hit the floor with a crash, though I barely felt the jarring impact.
Nona Regina peered down at me, a bereft look on her face. “No, I am the one who is truly sorry, Tristan.”
I couldn’t move, couldn’t even speak. Everything except my brain seemed frozen.
“Alokir powder is an amazing substance. Did you know that when it’s ingested, it paralyzes, but doesn’t affect the medulla oblongata brainstem functions?” she asked, her tone conversational as she got up from the table and left the room.
My eyes tracked her as far as possible until she disappeared from my line of sight. Long minutes went by until she returned, this time trailing the Oracle, who wore a supremely smug expression, and Princess Lashell.
“It is my regret to inform you, Prince Tristan, that you did not pass my trials,” the Oracle said as he sat in my chair. “The amount of blank spaces in your future was truly staggering, and when your Grandmother informed me that you were finally going along with our tests only so that you could gain access to Biodyne’s records? Poor decision on your part, child.”
My brain screamed bloody murder, all my willpower was focused on moving my body so I could plow down the bastard and get away, but nothing responded. Nothing moved.
“Had you been a bit less careless, perhaps we would not have begun investigating, but your averted media scandal with the abomination led us to track you a bit more closely,” the Oracle said. “You lost ground by your pick of the Baron Lavigne, a known radical personality. But what damned you the most was your stubborn loyalty to that Bio-droid. The Order could never allow someone to become Emperor who previously gave themselves over to false life.”
“Your refusal to upgrade models, Tristan,” Nona Regina said, speaking finally, “That has always put you under suspicion by the citizens of the Theocracy.”
The Oracle began circling me. “Enough that we set a series of tests.” He must have seen the wild look in my eyes. “Yes, we were the ones who corrupted the Bio-droid on the Regina One, and your third model.” He knelt down and patted my hair, as though he were a favored uncle, and if my body could have moved I would have recoiled from the touch. “It was unfortunate that you failed miserably enough that we must now replace you.”
Lashell moved to the back of the office, to the door hidden behind the hanging tapestry. She punched in the access code, and the marble slab slid upward to reveal...me.
A clone. The damnable Uranians had made a clone of me.
“He’s not, perhaps, as smart as you, but this Tristan is infinitely more malleable, and loyal to us,” Lashell said as she placed a hand on his chest.
The clone gave me a placid, sickening smile. “We’ll reign well in your place.”
I tasted bile in the back of my throat. How long had this plan been in place? Adult clones took time to grow, which meant that he had been gestating for a long time
Feeling began returning to my tongue. “Why,” I slurred, the word thick and clumsy.
Nona Regina shook her head. “I did not want to do this, Tristan, but you gave me no choice. We knew when your original perished in the accident that the Empire would fall into civil war without an heir, so in an act of desperation to keep the Empire together, we grew the clone and concocted the story that you had lost your memories in the accident. It was the perfect cover, the perfect opportunity to start again. We had a chance to make the Empire great again!”
My brain felt sluggish as it attempted to process what my grandmother just said. Guards filed in behind the clone, and Uranian technicians followed, carting a stasis chamber behind them. The guards manacled my hands and feet before they hoisted my body into the open chamber.
Nona Regina brushed the side of my face, her sharp nails trailing through my hair. “But perhaps an unchanged clone was too risky a move. There is too much of your father in you, I’m afraid. A leader who wants to parlay with the enemy isn’t trustworthy to lead the Empire into the future. Bio-droids today, Martians tomorrow?”
Adrenaline coursed through my veins as the technicians began programming the stasis chamber. Tingling began in my hands and feet, but I remained still. All the exposure to Alokir powder over years of practice meant I had built up a small tolerance to it. A slightly faster recovery time. I prayed to Jove it would be enough.
Lashell turned a haughty gaze down on me. “I’m sorry it had to be this way, Tristan, but the acolytes of the Theocracy have watched far too long as your line drags the Empire through the muck. We will rebuild the moral center of the Imperium, cast out the false flesh, and see glorious truth spread to the whole solar system.”
More sensation traveled up my arms and legs. Still, I bided my time. I would have perhaps one shot at making it out of this room without ending up in stasis.
If I could get them to talk more, perhaps I could gain that time I needed. “Traitors,” I slurred, this time purposefully.
The Oracle barked a harsh laugh. “That’s rich coming from you. From your birth you haven’t cared one whit for the good of the Empire. It was one of the unfortunate side effects of the cloning. We didn’t anticipate the loss of connection to the original’s memories to be so severe. Why are we even wasting time explaining things to him.” The Oracle whirled on Nona Regina. “If it were up to me, we would have simply shot him and been done with it.”
For the first time I had ever seen, Nona Regina favored the Oracle with an imperious, stormy gaze and drew herself to her full height. “But it was not up to you, and clone or not, I am still his grandmother. A stasis field will hold him just as well, and we have the added benefit of keeping this version around should we still need him.” She looked at me then as a game piece on a galactic playing field. “One never knows when something might suddenly become useful.”
Had this creature ever held any true affection in her heart for me at all? Or had I always been nothing more than a token to be pushed about a board in her quest for power and control.
The buzzing in my hands dulled to a quiet ache then, and I was certain I could move if I desired. As the technicians crowded around me to seal the stasis chamber, I lashed out with a jab. It was weak, too weak to completely incapacitate them, but the technicians were pushed backward and fell to the floor with a startled cry.
I leapt out of the chamber and stumbled toward the door. Almost instantly, the Oracle stood in my way. I jabbed again, but he blocked expertly for a blind man.
“This is futile, Tristan. You cannot win,” he gloated as he dodged my right fist, then grabbed it with his left hand and twisted it, sending me to the floor in a haze of pain.
I controlled my breathing as best I could. Pain was everything, pain was nothing. The Oracle continued to ramble, however, and I couldn’t stand listening to one more word. I drove my left fist straight into his abdomen, relishing the gasping wheeze as the old man tumbled backward.
I tried to run from the room, but the technicians had recovered, and soon the whoosh and sting of paralytic darts peppered my muscles. They instantly seized, and I collapsed in a gasping puddle on the cold floor.
The Oracle smiled his snake-like grin as he got up and hobbled toward me. “That was a valiant attempt, Tristan, but you can’t fight years of planning.” He plucked one of the darts from my back.
While I still had my tongue, I decided to continue doing damage the only way I still knew how: with words. “What will you do if this clone decides he’d like a brain of his own?”
The Oracle gave a bemused chuckle that turned into a cough. “He won’t. He’s undergone plenty of loyalty programming.”
I laughed bitterly, “I thought you controlled people with prophecy and smoke. Clones seem over the top, even for you.”
I gasped as the Oracle’s boot connected with my abdomen. “Your radical and dangerous ideals led the Theocracy to employ its innermost agent,” he looked at Nona Regina, “We cannot abide peace with Mars. In a future of peace, where lies the value in prophecy?”
The technicians hoisted my limp body back into the stasis chamber. “You talk high and mighty, but this is about nothing more than holding onto your own power at the expense of the people,” I said.
Nona Regina stepped forward. “We choose to see it differently, Tristan. We are sorry you could not do the same.”
I felt the buzz of the stasis field as it began the process of suspending my animation. My voice grew raw, either from the effects of the chamber, or my own emotions. “If t-that is all you are s-s-sorry for, I hope you freeze in the cold vacuum of space.”