Chapter 21:

Leaving the Empire

Red Storm Over Ganymede


**Tristan**

I came to in the middle of a war zone. I recognized the interior of the Princeps, and Isul seated in the pilot’s chair.

The blood splattered on the ramp was was new. As were Isul’s short, black antlers. And the shots currently rocking my ship were another new bonus.

“What the hell happened, and why does my head feel like its taken a few too many shots from a plasma cannon?” I asked. I tottered unsteadily into the cockpit and settled in the copilot chair.

Isul looked over briefly from his control board. His face was tear-stained and blotchy. “Winnie’s dead, Tristan.” His voice was a hollow, choked-out sob.

My head spun, either from that news or the roll Isul did to avoid a blast that would have vaporized us. “What are you talking about? Why are we even in the Princeps? Shouldn’t I be getting ready for the coronat-”

Memories floored me like the pull of high gravity.

Isul had tried to kill me and disappeared. I was a clone. Chet was held prisoner, or worse. The Oracle had been against me from the start. Nona Regina had betrayed me to her Uranian allies. My throne was now in the hands of a mind-altered clone. They put me in stasis for insurance.

And now Isul said Winnie was dead. Her face flashed in my mind. The almond-shaped eyes covered by her eyeglass and framed by a curtain of black hair. Her metal arm. The way she teased me, and the way a jibe lived in the upturned corner of her lips.

“What happened?” I yelled over the din of the ship’s warning systems.

“Not now. I need to get us out of here before the Regina One destroys us, under your - or rather, your clone’s - orders,” Isul replied.

Another cut to the bone. If I could not be put into storage, I was to be killed. Again.

Isul dropped the ship along the z axis, and my stomach went into freefall as our artificial gravity sputtered in and out.

I pulled up the weapons systems, and paled at the sight of only one functional cannon. Nevertheless, I swallowed my bile and took aim at the white, winged vessel that had only recently been my savior from the Martians, and fired.

The shots energy dissipated harmlessly around the Regina One’s energy shields.

Constant messages from the cruiser were flooding our communications system, asking us to stand down and surrender. Was Grace in command of the ship? Who did she think she was chasing down in my shuttle?

I opened the comm and transmitted my private code directly to their bridge. That should get their attention.

Almost instantly, the hail of laser fire let up, and the face of the communications officer popped up on my screen.

“Surrender now, and the Empire promises you a fair trial,” the young man’s voice shook.

He recognized my face. The face of the new Emperor he had just sworn to serve, and now fired upon.

My voice was cold and imperious. “I will parlay only with Admiral Nichols. Is she aboard your ship?”

A dark hand shoved the young officer aside, and Grace swept into view. She shoved the headset on over her beautifully coiffed hair, and I was pleased to see she had taken my advice about dressing up: the red of her dress uniform matched her lip color perfectly, and the gold of her earrings matched the color of the epaulets at her shoulders.

She must have come directly from the coronation. My coronation.

“By Jove, whoever made you was a damn good genetic engineer, because you look just like him,” she said, her voice steel.

I sighed. “We don’t have time for this. It’s me, Grace. Your Tristan. The original.” Not the time to muddy the situation with the fact that I was not the original.

She shook her head, her face contorted with doubt and anger. “You’re lying. I just saw Tristan crowned Emperor.”

I raised an eyebrow. “With Princess Lashell by his side? You’re one of the few people in the Empire who knew that Chet Lavigne was supposed to be the new consort.”

Her mouth opened as if she were about to respond, then closed suddenly as she looked thoughtful for a moment. “An easily planted lie. You knew I was close to the real Tristan, and you took advantage of that to feed me information.” I saw suspicion etched in every feature.

I groaned. “I served under you for almost three years. I know you like your caf as dark as space itself.”

“Easily known from Tristan’s service record, and from anyone who has ever taken a meal with me,” Grace replied, though I noticed a subtle shift in her demeanor.

Final chance. “You know that I love Isul, but his new body tried to kill me.”

Recognition dawned in her eyes, followed swiftly by a look of utter betrayal. “But if you’re there, then who’s?”

“A clone. Grace, the Oracle and the Empress engineered a clone of me they could control in order to give greater power to the Uranians. You have to stop them,” I begged.

Her eyes were wide and scared at the prospect of everything she had ever served being a fabrication. “I don’t have that kind of power, Tristan. You need to come back to Ganymede and show everyone the truth. If you run away, you’ll never gain the people’s trust back.”

I shook my head. “I can’t come back. They’re liable to kill me on sight as the impostor. They already killed a friend for helping me.” Prickling gooseflesh ran down my arms. “You can’t trust them.”

Grace was shaken. It was apparent to me that the iron core on which she had built her life was suddenly molten and volatile. She looked away from the screen and took a deep breath. When our eyes met again, hers were hard, and the next words she spoke were measured. “Go to Ceres, Tristan, and wait for further instruction there. I’m going to get to the bottom of this if it costs me my commission.”

“Aren’t your order to bring me in or destroy me?” I asked. If she defied these orders, which came direct from the Emperor, it would already cost her her commission, or worse.

Grace winked. “I don’t know. The damage to the ship isn’t one-hundred percent fixed. Perhaps we’re going to have a critical systems failure again. I’ll be in touch.”

With that, the screen went blank as Grace’s image disappeared, and almost instantly the power readings from the Regina One began to fluctuate wildly, then whole sections of the ship went dark.

Grace was risking her career, her life, to give Isul and I a chance to escape.

“You heard the Admiral; set a course for Ceres, and don’t waste this opportunity,” I said to Isul, and he simply nodded before powering up the engines and plotting the course.

The Asteroid Belt was a wretched hive of scum, cutthroats, bounty hunters, and other lowlifes. As part of the demilitarized zone, neither the Empire nor the Republic controlled the space there. Which made it a perfect haven for the disenfranchised denizens of the solar system who lived outside the law.

As I looked back at the Regina One and shining Ganymede beyond it, my chest hurt with the knowledge that Isul and I had just joined their ranks.

Steward McOy
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