Chapter 29:

The Fleet from Pluto

Red Storm Over Ganymede


**Tristan**

The being that stood before me was unlike anything my life had ever prepared me to meet. There was a core torso and legs there, but the arms, chest, and head were a constant shifting holo-image.

“I am the Voice of the Collective,” it announced. “I speak on behalf of the Bio-droids who your ancestors cast out of the Empire two-hundred years ago.”

We had been without word from Isul, Nemean, and Ferra for almost three days before the monstrous ship containing this intelligence suddenly decloaked off the Ares bow and demanded to speak with me. I almost refused, too worried about Isul, until he appeared on the communications screen along with the others.

Once they were safely back on board, I agreed to meet this so-called Voice. Isul helped explain that they wanted to help put me back on the throne of the Empire, if I would agree to put an end to Bio-droid reclamation.

“That is an easy agreement, Voice,” I replied. “I have been trying to circumvent the reclamation process with Isul for a full Jovian revolution by now. I would love nothing more than to have him by my side for the rest of my life. But something tells me you want more than that.”

The Voice nodded its holographic head, now in the shape of a ringed planet. “You are intuitive for an organic, Prince Tristan. We would also like an end to the Theocracy’s recognition as a Jovian protectorate.”

I gave a low whistle. It was a bold move on the Collective’s part. If the Theocracy was removed as a protectorate, the Jovian military had no legally binding reason to come to their aid should the Theocracy be attacked by another power. “So that you can wipe them out?” I asked as my eyes narrowed.

“Very astute. They have been the cause of much suffering. The solar system would be better off without them polluting it,” the Voice replied.

I took a deep breath before speaking. “Then if that is your reply, I must refuse. I cannot in good conscience sign the death warrant to two entire planets’ worth of people to regain my throne. So if that’s your condition to help me, you can just get right back on your ship.” As much as the Uranians had hurt me, I would not be party to their murder. This entire incident had too much blood on its hands already.

The Voice sat still in its seat. Its holographic parts flickered in and out as it compiled probabilities and numbers to what I had said. Finally, when it spoke again its voice was even, neutral. “I find it perplexing that you would endanger yourself to protect a people who hate the entity you claim to love, and have worked to have you both killed.”

“Valuing life and people’s freedom of choice to live that life in the way they see fit, even if you don’t like it very much, has been a better part of humanity for hundreds of years. What kind of ruler could I ever be if I sacrificed everyone I didn’t like?” I replied.

“A calculating one,” the Voice replied.

My eyes narrowed as I looked across the conference table. “Voice of the Collective, should you help me, I would do everything in my power to abolish the reclamation process. I can offer that the Council would then vote on the Theocracy’s status as members of the Empire. Certainly their leadership would have to change. But I can’t force those outcomes.”

The Voice considered my offer for an uncomfortably long time. “Very well, we accept your terms on one condition.”

“And that is?” I asked, genuinely curious.

“That if the Theocracy is allowed to sit at the table with the Empire, the Collective will be granted space as well.”

I almost laughed at the idea of people like the Oracle and Nona Regina being forced to deal directly with self-actualized Bio-droids. The irony of it was simply too appealing. “Very well, I would be pleased to have the Collective as allies.”

We went almost immediately into a flurry of planning. The Voice of the Collective returned to Pluto to continue its work, and left Captains Kali and Marduk of the stealth ships Shakti and Gates of Babylon to be our principal liaisons. Kali was a female Bio-droid with blue skin and six arms who wore a colorful wrap dress, while Marduk had the head of a man but the body of a winged lion. The awesome variety of Bio-droids in the Collective was stunning.

The humans in our group had still not been allowed down to the surface of the Pluto - including the First Minister of the Republic, which I thought was akin to a diplomatic slap in the face. Still, Minister Ellem seemed to brush off the Bio-droids coldness with ease as if it was something she encountered every day.

We had gathered in the conference room of the Ares to plan our strategy of attack: the First Minister, Nemean, Director Welles, Ferra, Isul, myself, Captain Kali, and Captain Marduk.

“I still say we must strike the Empire soon, before the Uranians have had time to build up their power base and solidify their control,” Director Welles said. It still made me anxious to hear the Director speak of attacking Ganymede.

Captain Marduk accessed the conference room’s holo-projectors and set out a map of the solar system. “Your ships must come out of the asteroid belt en masse to lure the Jovian fleet away from Ganymede. Only then can we bring the stealth ships in and capture the capital.”

I spoke next, “Isul and I have to be part of that strike force. Only we know the Empire well enough to get into the palace and capture it. From there, we can reveal the truth of what has happened to the citizens of the Empire.”

Ferra spoke up, “And they will believe you are the real prince, and not the clone?”

“I don’t know, honestly. I guess I have to hope they can see it,” I replied.

The Director snorted. “Doesn’t sound like much of a plan. I also want to know that my ships aren’t going to be blasted to bits by your military while we wait for the transmission to shut down the assault. I’d feel a whole lot better if we had one of those cloaking devices.”

Kali turned her cold eyes on the Director. “And I have said on multiple occasions that the cloaking device is not available to ships outside the Collective.”

“It will be bad enough dealing with the ship we know has one,” Nemean added. “And that’s hoping that the Uranians haven’t reverse-engineered their own from the model they stole, or we could be looking at a fleet of cloaked ships we don’t know how to deal with.”

The First Minister responded, “I think if the Uranians possessed more than one cloaking device, they wouldn’t have had to engineer such an elaborate plot to gain control of the Imperial throne. More likely they would have simply rained fiery retribution down on the Republic and the Collective alike.” She turned to me and said, “Tristan, I promise we will use non-lethal means against your Imperial ships for as long as possible, but I also won’t sacrifice my soldiers. Once they ships get too close, I have to turn our fleet around and head back into the asteroid belt.”

I nodded, “I understand, First Minister. Any time you can buy us will be greatly appreciated. I’m going to try and make contact with the Admiral of the Ganymede fleet. If she’s still in charge, they ought to be able to help us.” I thought of Grace, and prayed to Jove she was okay. I wasn’t sure I could handle the loss of another friend after Winnie.

Nemean transmitted the battle plans we had drawn up to each of the Bio-droids. “Then it’s settled. The First Minister, Director, Ferra, and myself will travel back to the Republic and ready the Republic fleet for a very visible journey through the asteroid belt, hopefully drawing away a large share of the Jovian fleet.”

“It won’t be easy to get the Senate to declare a state of emergency,” the Director muttered under his breath.

The First Minister looked surprised. “We’re not declaring war, Welles. Heavens, we haven’t the time to press something through the Senate; that could take weeks! I’m simply attending a fleet-wide training exercise at the edge of the asteroid belt.”

Director Welles actually laughed, though it was a harsh sound. “Perhaps you have a craftier side than I gave you credit for, First Minister.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment,” she replied before she pushed back her chair and rose from it to nod to Captains Kali and Marduk. “Please stay in constant contact once the operation begins. The long-range transmitters you have provided for Nemean, Ferra, and Isul should come in quite handy for staying in touch.”

Kali and Marduk both nodded before they too rose from their seats and left the Ares.

The First Minister turned back to me. “You’ll be all right with the Bio-droids from the Collective, Tristan? I can’t stay myself - too much to do, as always - but Nemean has said he would be willing to stay behind with you and Isul if necessary.”

I wasn’t over the moons about being the only “organic” as they called humans here among the Collective, but there was no way I would leave Isul alone with them. Perhaps I was simply fearful he would find it easier to stay and never return to me again.

“I’ll be alright. I’m a survivor, after all,” I said.

The First Minister nodded, then gestured for me to follow her. “Walk with me, please, Tristan.”

Isul was deep in planning with Nemean and Ferra, so I saw no reason not to follow her. We strode the empty corridors of the Ares before we came to a large transparisteel window that looked out to the stars. I could just make out a tip of one of the crescent-shaped ships in the corner of the window. A few technicians passed by us on their way to the bridge and exchanged pleasantries with the First Minister before leaving us alone again.

When it was just the two of us staring into space, the First Minister said quietly, “I remember you, you know. The original. I met you during one of the cultural exchange programs organized by your mother Octavia. I had forgotten about it.”

“What was he like?” I asked, my voice subdued.

The First Minister shrugged. “He was a Prince. Everyone treated him accordingly. But I’m going to tell you a secret.” She leaned in close and whispered in my ear. “I like you more.”

I felt my eyebrow arch as I looked back at her. “Even though you know I’m a clone? I thought the Republic had strict laws about cloning.”

“Oh, we do, we do,” Ellem said. “But all the loss you’ve gone through, it’s made you stronger as a person, you know.”

I shrugged as I gazed out into the darkness. “I don’t feel stronger. I feel ripped apart most of the time.”

“So does everyone else, dear. It’s just how good we are at hiding it. I think when you get back to the Empire, gods willing, it will make you a better ruler. You know the feeling of being lied to, of being used and manipulated. Hopefully you take that feeling and apply it to your life as Emperor,” she said.

“I’ve actually been thinking, I mean, I would never have thought about it before all of this happened. But if I ever get back to the Empire, I’ve thought about stepping down from the throne. The people don’t need a Prince. They need freedom.”

The First Minister nodded. “It’s a noble sentiment, if it’s what you truly want. You know I pretty much categorically don’t believe in royal writ and right to rule, but I still like you, Tristan. You have strong convictions that drive you. I pride myself on being a good judge of character, and I have a good feeling about you.”

“Even though I’m a clone, I’m certainly no Saint,” I laughed.

She tittered at my bad joke, and replied, “The nice thing about politics is that nobody who’s involved really is by the time they get to where we are.” Her face turned more serious as she added, “Have you given thought about what you might do afterward? Or what would happen to Isul?”

“I’m mostly trying to stay not dead, so like I said, I haven’t given it a great deal of thought. But if Isul can’t be fixed for good, I want him to live a free life, even if it’s without me,” I said quietly.

A smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. “Perhaps you had better check with him first. My wife passed away years ago, and even though the pain stays with you, I wouldn’t trade the memories for anything.”

“Memories are what got us into this whole mess in the first place,” I said.

The First Minister laid a hand on my arm. “Memories I’m sure Isul holds as dear as you. All I’m saying is, don’t run away because things look impossible now. The best things in life often appear that way when you’re living them.” She patted my arm one more time. “No matter what, though, I’ll make sure you and Isul have asylum approval in the Republic. You’re always welcome at our table.”

My eyes swam in the faint starlight, and I nodded, not trusting myself to words. 

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