Chapter 26:

State Dinner

Red Storm Over Ganymede


**Tristan**

The First Minister had been very generous with the use of her personal garment droidstation. It was a miracle of modern programming, able to design and create a vast array of clothing. I needed something appropriate to wear to this state dinner if I was to win the other Ministers to my cause. I had to look the part of a Prince.

Unfortunately, the garment station’s database of Jovian clothing was hilariously out of date. Everything it attempted to make had a scoop-necked collar, a style that had not been in vogue for almost five revolutions. I had good pecs, but I didn’t think showing my cleavage was going to swing the votes. With a great deal of coaxing, I convinced the droid-station to produce a fine, high-necked military jacket with epaulets and a sash, white pants, and formal boots. Seeing as how we were abroad, a crown was a bit much to request, and would have definitely made me look grasping and not helped my case.

Once I was appropriately attired, I waited with Nemean in the antechamber to the First Minister’s office. It was a lush room inside the Citadel, the building that functioned much like the Imperial Palace back home as a residence for the leader, but which was not nearly as elegant. It was a brutish, modernist building, all angles and sharp points. But I had grown to expect little from the Republic when it came to things of beauty that didn’t involve their lush agriculture.

Their terraforming was, I allowed, one thing I would import to the Empire without hesitation. To make the moons of Jupiter and Saturn live and breathe? It would be a true feat.

But that would have to wait. I nearly bolted upright when the door opened, and Director Welles stepped through. His boots were shined, and his red cape seemed to have a life of its own. But what I was most excited to see was the figure standing behind him.

“Isul,” I said with a smile as I rose to greet him. I looked him up and down. Nothing appeared to be out of order, but I knew quite well just how deceiving looks could be. “Did they treat you okay?”

He nodded. “Better than I expected.”

I turned on the charm as the First Minister came out of her office in a beaded dress, “Director Welles, our deepest gratitude for your kind handling of Isul.”

The Director crossed his arms over his chest and harrumphed. “Ferra oversaw the procedure. Tricky business, all that memory layering inside that Bio-droid. Couldn’t figure out why it was there, until I realized it wasn’t supposed to be.”

“Don’t hold us in suspense, Welles, what did you find?” the First Minister asked.

Director Welles’ eyes lasered in on me. “Those years of memories are hidden, First Minister. Some kind of access that can only be seen from the inside. If we’d interfaced normally, we would never have seen them. It’s like they’re supposed to be hidden, but who on Mars would hide Bio-droid memories?”

Isul squeezed my hand before speaking. “Nobody on Mars would hide them, because here there is nothing to hide. Here, Bio-droids are born in a body that remains theirs so long as they are functional. It is not so in the Empire.”

The First Minister and Nemean nodded. “Prince Tristan told us of the reclamation process,” Nemean said.

Isul said, “I doubt he told you we have twice now circumvented it.”

“Royal perk?” Director Welles asked, his tone acid.

I gave a bitter laugh. “No. We are not immune from the reclamation. I sought out black market help to keep Isul by my side.” My heartstrings twinged as I thought of Winnie and her brilliance, snuffed out now like a dead star.

“Why take that risk?” Nemean asked.

That question was easy. I thought only fleetingly that revealing such a secret was unwise; these people did not share our prejudices and fears. “We do crazy things when we’re in love.” I kissed Isul on the cheek.

The Director’s mouth was agape, his face slack in shock. The First Minister looked pleased. “Well, stars above us, who would have guessed.”

“I fear this is what truly brought strife to my relations with the Uranians. But I will not hide,” I said.

The First Minister nodded. “A noble sentiment fit for a Prince, I dare say. Those of us who live in the Republic are not always so willing to throw down over personal preferences. It is the way of those who must accept others’ ideals instead of dictating them.”

It was a backhanded compliment, to be sure, but I tried to not let it get to me. I needed this woman’s support.

She continued, “Now, if we’re quite ready, I’m sure cook has put together something lovely.”

We left her office and headed through the gargantuan hallways of the Citadel. Twenty centurions could have ridden abreast through them without problem. Instead of beautiful holo-portraits, their walls were lined with tile murals showcasing the great moments of the Republic. I saw a depiction of a battle that our historical documents said the Empire won, but here it was presented as a Republic victory. I had always put the Imperial records on an infallible pedestal, but they had been wrong about so many things. We had been wrong about so much.

What else in the history I had believed was a fabrication?

The First Minister led us into a smaller dining hall off of the main corridor, and I instantly knew we had reached the Rose Room (the intricate tile roses on the walls being a dead giveaway). A sumptuous table had been set, and the twelve people gathered there rose as we entered. These must have been the other Ministers. They were a widely varied bunch, and each wore a different costume of sorts.

“Thank you all for coming on such short notice,” the First Minister said as she headed directly for the head of the table. I noted that the chairs there were all the same height; no thrones around this table. I also saw there were two empty chairs on her right that held Isul and my names, and two to the left, which held Nemean and Director Welles names. That meant that Bio-droids sat at the same tables as their masters. Or did they even have masters here?

One of the Ministers, a dark-skinned woman in a vibrant wrap dress, said, “You don’t usually summon us here just for a light supper, so we’re all waiting with bated breath for whatever this is. Don’t make us sit through a soup and salad course before telling us what’s going on.” Several of the other Ministers chuckled.

First Minister Ellem smiled as she sat down, which allowed the rest of us to seat ourselves. “Oh, it’s nothing much, just wanted to introduce you to Prince Tristan of the Jovian Empire,” she said, indicating me.

The cacophony of twelve voices raised in everything from panic to awe was overwhelming, but not unexpected.

Nemean growled, which silenced them all in a hurry. “That’s more like it,” he said.

A short man with a pencil moustache eyed me warily. “Surely this is some kind of Jovian trick?”

The dark-skinned woman spoke again, “Assuming he’s the genuine article, what is he doing here?”

The First Minister looked around the table and met the eyes of all the people gathered there. “I need you all to understand, first and foremost, that everything spoken here does not leave this room.”

Heads nodded around the table. She looked at me then, and I nodded as well.

“The Prince is requesting political asylum in the Republic,” she announced.

The shouting resumed from all corners of the table until Nemean silenced everyone again. If things continued this way, we were bound to never have supper at all. I snuck a glance at Isul, who looked dejected, and squeezed his hand reassuringly underneath the table.

A tall, thin man asked, “And what precipitated this surprising turn of events? Surely we would have known the Empire was in enough turmoil to oust the monarchy.”

I let out a slow breath between my teeth. Was everyone here going to be positively giddy over the idea of my family losing the crown? I hadn’t forgotten this whole damn mess started with that Martian ship attacking my shuttle.

I pulled myself up to my full height and channeled Nona Regina’s scowl to the best of my abilities. When I began to speak, every eye in the room lasered in on me immediately. “Funnily enough, sir, this whole thing began to unravel after your cloaked ship attacked my shuttle inside Jovian space.”

Eyes moved from me back to the First Minister, who scowled. “Prince Tristan, as I am sure you’re aware, cloaking technology is a lost technology. We have never possessed it, and are of the belief that the Empire has never possessed it either.”

I scowled back. “Isul, please show them the recordings from your memory banks.”

Isul did as I asked, and soon the room’s holo-projectors were showing his memory of the attack, and paused on our scans and visuals of the Martian warship. “This cruiser is your design, correct?” I asked.

Director Welles cleared his throat. “If I may?” he said, with a look to the First Minister, who waved him on. “I concede that this ship looks very much like one of ours, but several key differences - including what are obviously deuterium engines - preclude it from being recognizable as any part of our fleet.”

I cleared my throat. “Which is exactly what you would say if you had developed this ship in secret. It has the hallmarks of being a prototype ship, Director, you must admit.”

He nodded slowly. “I concur, it does appear to be a prototype, and it does indeed look very much like something we might develop, but if the Republic had the technology to do this, I very much doubt we would be sitting here tonight having dinner. Special Investigations would not have let a prototype ship like that be seen and let survivors run home to tell the tale.” His smile was canine in its ferocity.

Despite my distaste for the Director, I had to admit he had a point. Why build a prototype cloaked ship, then let it be seen? Better to equip a fleet and attack Ganymede directly. “Then if you didn’t build it, who else in the solar system has the resources necessary to do such a thing? The Empire certainly didn’t build a ship to attack and kill our own people.” I twisted my napkin into shreds in my lap the more heated the conversation became.

“Are you so sure?” Welles shot back. “Are you sure the Uranians didn’t construct something without your knowledge? The information from you Bio-droid suggests that your Empire is more divided than you would have us believe.”

I felt my face burn with embarrassment, and anger that the Director seemed to know all of my secrets and I none of his.

“There is a third option, though remote,” Nemean said quietly.

I seized on this, grateful to the leonine Bio-droid for his timely intervention. “What is it? There is a fourth power in the solar system?”

Nemean looked uncomfortable as he spoke, as though he regretted even brining up what he next spoke of. “Not a power, per se. But beyond Neptune, in the cold outer reaches, we know there exists a Collective on Pluto and Charon.”

My curiosity was piqued. We had always been taught in the Empire that the outermost planets were too cold and remote to sustain any life. They were barren wastes, it was plainly seen through any powerful telescope. “A Collective of what, exactly?”

Nemean sighed and said, “Bio-droids.”

The table exploded in a buzz of conversation again, and I looked over at Isul, who’s face mirrored the shock no doubt on my own.

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