Chapter 25:

First Minister

Red Storm Over Ganymede


**Tristan**

No sooner had Isul been carted away, then the Director turned his attention back to me. “So, Prince Tristan. Or is it simply Tristan now that your double has assumed the throne?”

“I never forfeited my title when that clone took my place. I’m still the Prince of the Empire,” I replied, my voice cold. This impudent man should remember who he was addressing so casually.

Director Welles continued, “Prince of an Empire that apparently has no need for you anymore.”

That one stung. “If the people knew the truth…” I began to say.

“The people who live outside the nobility? You expect them to care?” the Director said. “Your Empire, for all its grandeur, would likely have fallen into civil war a hundred years ago if the Theocracy had not brought a stabilizing and sedating religion with them when they joined. It has kept your people placated and stopped them from rising up and overthrowing you.”

I felt my cheeks flush with anger. “Who are you to make such suppositions about me and the Empire?”

The wan smile appeared again on his face. “Just an observer from a government who doesn’t let their poorer citizens starve on the streets.”

“How dare you,” I spat back as I rose from the chair. I might have done bodily harm to the man right then and there had the door not flown upward right then.

The woman who barreled inside the Director’s office was incredibly short and pleasantly plump, with rounded, red cheeks. She wore a furious expression on what I thought was normally a very pleasant face.

“Welles, this is unacceptable!” she shouted. “Stop threatening the boy. He’s not a prisoner; he’s out guest!”

I felt perverse pleasure as Director Welles eyes practically bulged out of his sockets. “First Minister, what on Mars are you doing here? This compound is a restricted area.”

The woman drew herself up to her full height, which could not have been more than five feet. “I was elected by the people of the Republic to oversee their government. Special Investigations falls under that government still, does it not, Director?”

“Y-yes, of course it does, First Minister,” Director Welles replied, though I could hear a faint strain of irritation in his voice.

So this was the famed and fabled First Minister of the Martian Republic, our longtime nemesis? I had seen grandmothers (literally) who looked more imposing. She was the antithesis of Nona Regina - all rounded edges instead of sharp planes. Still, it wouldn’t do to have her think I didn’t respect her. This woman, no matter her warm appearance, led our most formidable enemy.

She turned to me, and the wattage of her smile practically tanned my skin. “Pleasure to meet you, Prince Tristan, absolute pleasure,” she crowed as she pumped my hand.

I inclined my head the way Nona Regina had taught me to do to others just slightly below my station. “The pleasure is mine, First Minister…”

She gave a tittering laugh. “Where are my manners? Ellem, please, call me Ellem. You’ll have to excuse my late arrival.” She shot a dark look at the Director. “Director Welles seemed to have misplaced his report on your presence here. For several days.”

It certainly appeared there was no love lost between the First Minister and the Director of Special Investigations. Perhaps even a bit of a power struggle. I could use that. “I’m sure it was simply an oversight, Minister Ellem. I’m sure the Director was going to pass along my request for political asylum soon.”

I knew she couldn’t resist bait like that. A Prince fleeing the Empire he was sworn to inherit? What elected leader wouldn’t want the feather in their cap of welcoming their sworn enemy back after ten years of mistrust and radio silence?

Minister Ellem turned to Director Welles, arms akimbo, and announced, “The boy is coming with me, Director. He will be dining with the inner cabinet tonight, and that includes you. We will hear his request formally there.”

The Director’s face turned a vibrant puce. “First Minister, I think it would be a grave oversight to allow the Prince out of custody so soon after his arrival. We have not yet verified his story with the memory files of the Bio-droid he arrived with.”

First Minister Ellem’s lips pursed in thought. “I never said he would be out of custody, Director. By all means, continue your work on said Bio-droid, so long as it comes to no harm. And bring it to the dinner tonight.”

I inclined my head to the First Minister. “I am most grateful. Isul is all I have left of home, I would be distraught were anything untoward happen to him.”

Director Welles appeared ready to say something, but before he could utter any words the First Minister had taken me by the hand and begun dragging me out of his office. Once we were out in the hallway, she gestured for a leonine Bio-droid to follow. “Nemean, summon all the Ministers in my inner cabinet to dinner tonight. It’s not a request.”

He shook his thick pelt. “And will you be hosting in the banquet hall?”

“Too formal. The Rose Room is more intimate to welcome a Prince, don’t you think?” she replied as if she were not still holding onto my shirt sleeve.

The leonine nodded. “Very good, Ma’am. I’m transmitting the details to the staff now.”

“Excellent.” She turned back to me. “Well, Prince Tristan, how do you feel about getting the ten minute tour?”

I was tired, and felt cranky, but if being a royal had taught me one thing, it was never to let your true self show to your enemy. So I answered, “I’d be honored.”

The ten minute tour of Olympus Mons was more like the three hour tour. I was breathless as I surveyed the vast plains that stretched beyond the mountain capital of the Republic. Cities soared on the horizon between belts of green, and from everywhere, the smell of earth and rock. If the Empire was a beautifully cut crystal, all precision and technology and order, the Republic was like a geode split open, revealing the chaotic beauty hidden inside. They had actually done it. Terraformed this red monstrosity of a planet.

The First Minister walked on one side of me, while Nemean strolled on the other and pointed out highlights. “Over there, you’ll see the Spiral Tower of Jezerel, the last monarch tolerated by the Republic. She threw herself off the edge and spared us all the trouble of ousting her.”

The Spiral Tower was a lovely thing, rainbow panes of glass running like ripples down its sides. But the message was clear: you’re an aberrant anomaly here, and we don’t take kindly to monarchy.

They didn’t have to like me to help me. Ever since the First Minister had ‘rescued’ me from the Director’s office, I had begun fomenting a plan to return to the Empire. If there was one thing the Martians hated more than the Empire, it was likely the Theocracy. Once I chose to reveal the Oracle’s part in my ousting, the Republic might be willing to step in and push back, preferring perhaps anything other than the Uranians’ access to military-grade weapons.

But for now I played the charmed tourist.

“It’s a lovely city,” I said, and it was not a lie. Very different from the Empire, almost cosmically so, but lovely all the same. I gestured to the fertile land below. “Is this what Earth looks like too?” The Terra Mater was legend among the people of the Empire, the birth world from which all our societies had sprung. Story said it had burned hundreds of years ago, though, which led to the Terran Diaspora that sent us out into the far reaches of the solar system.

Nemean smiled, revealing his impressive teeth. “I imagine where you are from, Earth is a beautiful legend. But for us, it is an ongoing cleanup effort.”

I was confused. “What does that mean?”

Ellem laid a hand on my arm. “Prince Tristan, Earth was nearly destroyed before the Diaspora. Why did you think everyone left?”

Though I had never seen the blue orb outside of spatial espionage telescope pictures, I was shocked. “You mean nobody lives there?”

Ellem shook her head. “A few million people live on the Moon, many of them involved in the decontamination process, but the Earth has not been safe for long-term human habitation since we left. War is mankind’s last legacy for its home planet, I’m afraid. The sins of the past have a long reach into the future.”

I felt sad, and spoke with honesty. “For as long as I can remember, there has been a movement called the Homelanders in the Empire. They say it is our sworn right as children of the Earth to return there. Though it would have had to be through war, as Earth has been under your control since the division of the system.”

“There is a strong desire in all of us to return, Prince Tristan. I won’t live to see it, though, and I doubt even you will. Perhaps Nemean can plant a tree there in our memory,” she chuckled as he patted the leonine’s furry hand.

He smiled. “If my systems are still functional, Ma’am, I would be most honored.”

I cracked a smile. “Well, six years doesn’t give you much time. Better get planting now.”

A puzzled look came into his eyes. “Six years? What do you mean?”

“You’re joking, right? The Bio-droid lifespan. Six Terran years,” I said, bewilderment coloring my words.

Nemean huffed. “Well that sounds like some kind of barbaric joke. I’ll have you know I’ve been a functioning member of the First Minister’s family since before she was born. I’ve been online over fifty years.”

My shock must have registered on my face, because the First Minister sat me down on a bench. “The Empire only allows Bio-droids a six-year lifespan? That’s...horrible. Nemean is family; they all are. To know when you enter into that relationship that you’ll have to let them die so soon! Like some kind of pet.”

I shook my head emphatically. “It’s not supposed to be like that. It’s to protect them from memory degradation and madness.”

Nemean laughed. “Memory degradation? Sound like like something that would happen to a human.”

The First Minister’s face grew dark. “What it sounds like is something Uranians would cook up with their prejudice against artificial life forms. Which is ludicrous considering the amount of cloning they do.”

What it sounded like to me was another lie layered on top of the foundation of lies and half-truths my entire life had been built on. “The Bio-droid revolution,” I said quietly.

“What did you say?” Nemean asked.

I looked at the leonine’s concerned face, “Old Imperial records talk about a Bio-droid revolution that almost destroyed us. It was where the memory degradation problem was first identified. After the revolution failed, the mandatory reclamation process was put into effect.”

“Reclamation process?” Nemean asked.

I searched for words that would not offend. “It’s a mandatory shutdown.”

The lion bared his teeth. “Pre-programmed death. It’s barbarism. Your government lets this happen?”

I shrugged, though I felt sick inside. I didn’t want to get into the specifics of Isul’s memory transfers just yet, though. “Until today, I never knew there was another way.”

The First Minister nodded her head and laid a hand on my shoulder. “If nothing else comes of our talk today, that someone from the Empire knows the truth about this Bio-droid hogwash they’ve been fed for years is a good start.”

I could feel the tears stinging my eyes now. If Isul had come online here, among these people, he could have avoided years of heartache. He could have lived a natural lifespan without subterfuge and secrecy. He and I could have been free to love.

Tears started spilling out then, alongside deep, gasping sobs. Everything that had happened, every thought and feeling I had buried, was suddenly too much. I clung to the First Minister as I cried, and felt the soothing rub of Nemean’s paw on my back. After long minutes and hiccuping gasps, I turned my tear-stained face to Ellem.

“I-I’m so sorry, Minister Ellem,” I whispered. “I don’t know what came over me.”

Her smile was beatific. “I may not know you very well, Prince Tristan, but I do know what’s bothering you. You’ve been through a traumatic experience, this loss of home. Sometime the heart simply can’t bear another injustice. Your tears are no sign of weakness, but instead a sign of empathy. Do not be ashamed of them.”

I nodded as a lump formed in my throat. “Thank you.”

She continued, “Now, let’s get you back to the Citadel and see if we can’t get ready for what is certain to be a terribly awkward dinner.”

Steward McOy
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