Chapter 20:

Escaping Ganymede

Red Storm Over Ganymede


**Isul**

I dashed out of the choked gravity chute and pushed my way through the crowds, Winnie close behind me. Multitudes flooded the square surrounding the palace, and camera drones darkened the sky as they each tried to get a shot of Tristan and Lashell.

The false Tristan. My code tangled as I watched him stand there proudly wearing my beloved’s face and holding the Uranian princess on his arm for all the Empire to see. They were both dressed in the luxurious robes of state, the very same pieces I had picked up from the royal tailor. The pair ascended the palace steps and stopped midway to smile for the camera drones, a shot that I had no doubt would grace every HoloNet broadcast for the next week.

Dread filled me; at any moment, the clone was going to be crowned Emperor. At the moment they no longer needed my Tristan, what would they do with him? I dared to pray to any of the Saints that might listen that Tristan wasn’t already dead.

“We need to get into the palace to access the security system inside,” she whispered as our hooded heads drew together. The unspoken words were that it was dangerous for both of us to be seen in public right now. My absence would not have gone unaccounted for by whoever had replaced Tristan, and Winnie remained persona non grata in most of the Empire.

I nodded in agreement and began working my way through the crowd toward the palace gates. We passed through without incident (no doubt due to the amazing jamming signal Winnie transmitted to the gate’s scanners), and made for a series of outbuildings on the fringe of the crowds. They were normally used for royal guard residences, but I carefully searched for number six, overrode the locking mechanism, and pushed Winnie inside.

She looked distinctly unimpressed with the surroundings. “You want to hide out in this old shack?”

“Look again,” I said as I pushed a glitchy holo-display of the Empress out of its alcove, which revealed a small lever.

Winnie smiled. “Secret passage. I always did wonder how the two of you got out of the palace without being detected.”

I smiled. “This passage will take us under the parade grounds and into the sub-basement below the structure. Once inside, I’ll plug into the Imperial DataNet.”

“I don’t know about the wisdom of that plan. I’ll try to block their data sweeps from picking up your presence, but I think that will only work for a short time,” Winnie replied.

I nodded and depressed the level, which shunted a section of the floor aside to reveal a broken gravity tube entrance. I jumped down and caught Winnie as she followed. With the flick of a switch down here, the entrance above resealed itself and slid the holo-bust back into its alcove.

When we finally reached the end of the tunnel, I boosted Winnie up onto the rickety ladder that was bolted to the wall, and climbed up after her. It was a short climb, and soon she was opening the trap door into the palace’s sub-basement.

The door led into a rarely-used room that held crates and barrels filled with food rations, blankets, spare power cells and the like. The deactivated gravity tube connecting the housing unit and this chamber meant that long ago the troops had used this area as well.

“Are there any access ports down here for you to connect?” Winnie asked.

I nodded and pushed aside a particularly heavy container with food rations.

The plug was ancient, and Winnie cooed over it for a moment, “I haven’t seen this connection outside of historical records! I can’t believe you have this hookup here.”

“Focus, Winnie,” I said, as we plugged in. “I’m inside, I said as the feed from my ocular receptors was replaced by the swirling eddies of data inside the Imperial DataNet. “Are we covered?”

Winnie nodded as her eyeglass lit up with the programs she was running to shield our presence. “They can’t see us.”

We began trawling the DataNet for any information related to Tristan. We traced his movements over the last week, all the while looking at the images to see if the scar was visible on his lip.

I began to feel hopeless as our timeline moved closer and closer to the coronation day, but as I watched Tristan enter the Empress Dowager’s office yesterday evening, I gasped when I saw the Oracle and Princess Lashell follow him into the room, and the clone and Lashell walk out long minutes later.

“There,” I breathed. “The Empress’s office, last night. We’re going to have to search the office; no holocams allowed inside,” I added.

Winnie scowled. “Then we had better do it soon. The clone just married Princess Lashell.” She pulled up footage from the ceremony taking place outside, and my insides sparked seeing this simulacrum dip Lashell into a long kiss as the crowds roared their approval.

They would never cheer like that for us, of that I was sure.

I cleared my buffers and unhooked from the DataNet. “Come on, I know the way.”

Winnie was able to give us five cliks of looped camera recordings, and we ran through the palace hallways as fast as possible. The hallways were deserted, however, as everyone was watching the ceremony.

But the door to the office was triple encrypted. Winnie set to work on cracking the code as I nervously watched the countdown and scanned for staff. “Hurry up, hurry up!” I said.

“Codebreaking is an art, and it can’t be rushed!” Winnie hissed back. “If I’m not careful, we’ll set off the alarms, and I imagine that’s something you’d like to avoid?”

Tense minutes passed, and we had to step away from the door and hide for a short period as a set of guards patrolled the corridor. But soon Winnie was back working her particular brand of magic, and slowly, ever so slowly, the door to the Empress’s office slid open.

Winnie pushed me inside as she redid the outer layers of the code, so that if someone came by to check they would not know anything had been tampered with. When we turned around, however, gasps of indignation came out.

“What have they done to him?” I cried, as I rushed toward the contraption they had my Tristan contained in.

Winnie let out a low whistle. “That’s a class three stasis chamber. They developed those for long-term space travel during the Diaspora, but this has been redesigned recently for better storage and less cellular degradation.”

“Focus, Winnie,” I said. “How do we get him out of it?”

She pulled out her omnitool and grinned as she got to work. “Give us a minute to work our magic, lovedroid.”

While Winnie worked on the stasis chamber, I pulled up the office’s holoprojectors and continued watching the ceremony. I began to seethe the longer I watched the clone. His mannerisms, everything about him was perfection. But he wasn’t Tristan. Tristan had rough edges, and those helped shape him and give him that undeniable humanity. This clone was nothing more than what his Grandmother had always desired him to be.

Tristan’s only living family, and she had betrayed him so brutally. I understood her hatred of me, but he had only ever wanted her love and respect, and in the end only received a cruel cup of betrayal. I would be here for him, though. Always.

“Got it!” Winnie said, as the transparisteel top of the chamber began to open and the stasis field began to dissipate.

Tristan was groggy as he slurred out, “Die in space, you Jove-damned old man.”

I grasped Tristan around the waist and lifted him into my arms. “Don’t worry, Tristan, we’ve got you now. Everything will be all right.”

His unfocused gaze landed on my antlers, then traveled down their length until it rested on my face. “Am I dreaming still? You weren’t here, but I wanted you to be, but you ran away because of me.” His face drooped.

“I’m here now, and we’re leaving this forsaken palace together, the three of us,” I said.

Just then, we turned to watch the holofeed as the clone and Princess Lashell knelt down before the Oracle and Empress Regina, who placed the crowns of rule on their heads.

The Oracle’s voice rang out across the crowded square. “Rise, Tristan and Lashell Deschard, and face your subjects as Emperor and Empress!”

“Stole my...hat,” Tristan mumbled into my chest.

I pulled him closer to me, wishing I could erase all of this except for the electric feeling of his body against mine. “That’s right, but first we’re going to get you out of here, then make sure they’re sorry for ever stealing your hat.”

Tristan mumbled something unintelligible in response while Winnie asked, “What’s the best way out?”

I gestured with my head toward the tapestry in the back of the room. “Hidden door to the servant halls back there, but nobody uses it because the last person who surprised the Empress found themselves banished.”

We ducked behind the tapestry, and within moments Winnie had overridden the locking mechanism on the door. The servants hallway was bare, and we set off at the fastest possible pace while trying not to jostle Tristan too much. I wanted to get Tristan back to his quarters to rest, but Winnie nixed that idea, saying it was far too public a space.

We ran further, and eventually found an exit that led us back out into the main corridors of the palace at a point directly across the hall from the entrance to the sub-basement. When we peered into the hallway from the cracked door, a pair of guards stood by the doorway, studying the panel on the side.

“I could have sworn the central registry logged an unauthorized access to this room, but the panel shows nobody has accessed it since the last inspection of the ration contents,” one of them said.

The other scoffed, “That central registry system has more bugs than a seventh-year Bio-droid.”

The first one chuckled. “Maybe with a new Emperor we can finally get a budget for tech upgrades.”

After a couple more digs at the monarchy, the two guards ambled away from the panel to continue their rounds.

Winnie bolted across the hallway and opened the door, and I followed behind, carrying a still-groggy Tristan. I breathed easier once we were inside the sub-basement, and flipped up the trap door that led to the gravity tube. Getting Tristan down the rickety ladder was a challenge, and eventually I had to throw him over one shoulder and hold onto the ladder with one hand. Getting back up the other side was even worse, but at least Tristan was lucid enough to hold his hands around my neck as I needed both hands for the handholds.

My metal heart began to unclench as I pushed open the hatch that led into number six. We might actually make it out of the palace complex without them discovering Tristan was missing. Any good mood evaporated as we were greeted by the barrel end of three laser rifles.

Uranian guards stood over the hatch. Hands seized Tristan from his place at my shoulders and dragged him into the room, where I saw him cry out in pain as he was thrown down on the floor and manacled.

We had been so close.

Winnie was pulled up after me, but didn’t seem to mind being at gunpoint. In fact, she wore a worrisome grin as she put her hands in the air, flexed the middle finger of her robotic hand, and watched with glee as the hand twisted open to reveal a wide-spread pulse cannon. She aimed, and in a flash of light the guards crumpled to the floor.

“Come on,” she said as I pulled Tristan up. “It won’t be long before the Uranians realize their little friends are missing.”

We hustled out of number six and ran through the crowd, breath only coming easier when we jumped into a gravity tube and sped away from the palace.

“That settles it; we’re leaving Ganymede,” Winnie announced. “The two of you are clearly not safe here, and now that my face has no doubt been recorded alongside you my spell of anonymity has likely been broken as well. We’re going back to my lab to get a few things, and then we’re chartering the first ship out that we can get.”

Everything was happening so fast, my central processor barely had time to keep up. “Leave and go where?” I asked as we traveled along the central gravity tube. Tristan held onto me like a life preserver as we moved faster through the low-gravity field.

“Ceres, Pluto, perhaps even the Republic,” Winnie said, ticking off the options on her fingertips. “Even in the solar system, there are still plenty of places to hide and regroup.”

“What about Enceladus? Chet would be willing to hide us,” I suggested.

Winnie gave me a withering glare. “If the Baron of Enceladus is still alive, which is certainly not a given at this stage, don’t you think he would be under guard? We so much as blip there and we’re dead. Imperial Security has spies everywhere, Isul. It’s just that now, instead of feeling protected, you feel threatened like many of the rest of us.”

I had always known the Empire and its ways favored some of its citizens over others, but Winnie’s accusation stung. I believed Tristan would go on to right many of the wrongs in our society. Now it appeared he would never get the chance.

We exited the gravity tube at the stop closest to Winnie’s workshop, and dashed through the eerily empty streets. Most people must have been inside watching coverage of the coronation. I predicted a high probability that once the broadcast was over, however, the streets would be flooded with revelers. As was so often the case, humans took any opportunity to get drunk.

Winnie led us back to the lab, and when we arrived she wasted no time in beginning the shutdown process for her workstations.

“If I could guarantee I could get back here, I wouldn’t do this,” she grumbled. “My research is stored several places, but I do hate to leave behind all the fabrication materials. I’m years ahead of Biodyne in several-”

“A little less self-congratulations, a little more system wiping?” I pleaded as I placed Tristan on her beat-up couch.

I helped Winnie go through a multitude of files. She debated setting off a pulse bomb in the building and burying everything, but I talked her out of it, saying we couldn’t draw that kind of attention. When we finally finished to Winnie’s satisfaction, we all crammed onto the seat of the hydraulic chair, and it carried us up into the second level of the workshop.

I had never been up here before, and was impressed at the tidy living area overtop the chaotic laboratory below. We ascended a flight of stairs and ended up on the roof of the building, where a black hovercar (likely with forged identification) waited.

I stowed the still-groggy Tristan in the back, and joined Winnie at the pilot’s controls. “How long has it been since you’ve driven?” I asked.

“Too long, I’m afraid,” Winnie replied as she looked at the controls. “Why don’t you take the controls and get us to the spaceport while I concoct some fake identification chips.” She pressed several controls on her metal arm, and I heard a faint grinding sound from the appendage as I began the takeoff procedure.

I risked a glance at her as we left the rooftop and joined the main skyway over the Warrens. It appeared as though her arm was generating ID chips straight from its own metal. Winnie flexed the fingers of her arm and smiled at me. “Bio-mimetic alloy. Lets me replicate the arm like cells undergoing mitosis. Handy when you need to make something small.”

I shook my head. “Do you have any idea how much you could sell that for?”

Winnie grinned back. “I have a very good idea, but I prefer to keep my best inventions to myself. It’s usually less threatening to my life.”

I shook my head and returned to piloting. The skyway was nearly as empty as the streets below, and again I was glad. Tristan had slumped over in the back seat and I momentarily panicked until I saw the slow rise and fall of his chest.

As Catamitus flashed by below us, I wondered what kind of life the three of us could build away from the Empire. This was definitely a case where Winnie and I would be better able to protect and hide Tristan together. Perhaps Winnie would eventually find a way to truly fix me, and let me live a full life again. I caught a reflection of the short, metallic black antlers in the transparisteel of the windshield. They were a constant reminder now that I was not whole, but I was still thankful for them preventing me from hurting Tristan.

We flashed the fake ID chips at the hovercar entrance to the spaceport, and passed under the scanners without incidence. As we neared the terminal, however, my ocular sensors spied several hovercars belonging to Imperial Security. I turned sharply, cutting down another route. We would never make it through the main entrance.

Winnie cursed. “They’ve grounded all of the liftoffs.”

I swerved down toward the royals’ private dock. If they thought we were trying to sneak away on a commercial flight, it was conceivable they didn’t consider us trying to take the Princeps. I gunned the throttle and roared through the private scanners.

Instantly, lights and sirens began going off all over the spaceport. “They know we’re here!” I yelled over the cacophony. Imperial Security would no doubt be on top of us in minutes.

The hovercar bounced over the final checkpoint into the royals’ hangar, and before we had even come to a complete stop Winnie threw open the door and jumped out. The Princeps and the Empress Dowager’s ship sat on their landing pads. And running in from the opposite direction were a platoon of royal guards.

“Halt!” they yelled.

Winnie looked back at me. “Get Tristan onto the ship!” she yelled. Her metal arm grew several long stalks that spiraled out in a circular shape before bursting forth with energy. An energy shield. Winnie was shielding us until I could get the ship started.

I dove into the back and picked up Tristan, no time to think about helping him walk on his own. Thankfully, the Princeps computer hadn’t had time to be reprogrammed, so it still responded to my commands and lowered the gangplank. I threw Tristan into the rear passenger seat and told the computer to begin powering up the ship for takeoff.

When I had secured him, I flew back down the gangplank to see that Winnie’s shield had taken damage. Several of the energy panes were flickering, threating to go out. “Is the Princeling secured?” she asked.

I nodded and began firing shots of my own into the ground around the troops. Programming prevented me from harming them directly, but I could at least give them pause about stepping forward.

My feet reconnected with the gangplank, and we began backing our way up the ramp.

“Get to the controls, I’ll hold them off here,” Winnie said, as her hand transformed into a plasma cannon and fired several shots into group of agents.

The engines were primed, and I instructed the computer to begin the launch sequence. Winnie fired several more shots into agents as the ramp began to retract into the ship.

She let out a whoop of triumph.

But one of the panes of her shield evaporated.

And suddenly she was falling from the ramp, a smoking hole gaping in her chest.

Steward McOy
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