Chapter 31:

Captain Grace Nichols

Red Storm Over Ganymede


**Tristan**

The shuttle pod sat in the vast emptiness of space, sending out its coded transponder signal. I recognized the “pick me up, dammit” code it transmitted, and grinned. Grace at her finest. She was brave to come out alone to meet us, not knowing what she was getting into just yet. My heart swelled as I recognized the trust she was placing in me.

Our communications had only been via text over the last several weeks of frenetic planning, and this would be our first face-to-face meeting in months. I tapped my hand against the console in anticipation, eager to see my friend again.

“It’s Captain Nichols,” I announced to Captain Marduk. He nodded, and with a command the Gates of Babylon decloaked, shot out a tow cable and began to reel in the tiny shuttle pod.

“Prince Tristan, please go meet our guest. I’m sure a friendly face will go a long way to smoothing relations,” Captain Marduk said. “I’ll be along shortly to make introductions.”

I raced down toward the shuttle bay, arriving just in time for the deck to be repressurized and the shuttle pod secured in its docking clamp. The door opened with a hiss, and Grace stepped down the the ramp. Her face was a concerned frown at the Plutonian centurions that surrounded the pod, but softened when her gaze lit on me.

I stepped forward and held out my hand. “Welcome to the Plutonian stealth ship Gates of Babylon, Grace.”

She bypassed my hand entirely and pulled me into a tight, fierce hug. “By the Saints, Tristan, I thought you were dead. I hired a private investigator to come find you, but he couldn’t find any trace of you on Ceres, and then I got shipped off to Enceladus,” her voice cracked. She looked up at me through red eyes. “What happened to you?”

I tried to laugh. “I got lost, in more ways than one. Luckily, a bounty hunter picked us up and sold us to the Martian Republic.”

Grace’s eyes went wide. “The Martians? If they hurt you, I’ll laser them into the sun.”

“Put your weapons away, Captain,” I said, stressing the last word. “The Martians are going to help us take back the Empire from the Uranians.”

Grace shook her head. “Now this I’ve got to hear.”

***

Captain Marduk moved the ship from the coordinates where we picked up Grace in case anyone came looking for the missing shuttle pod and was able to trace its transponder. While we waited for him in the ship’s observation lounge, Grace and Isul exchanged greetings again.

“Are you sure you’re okay now?” she asked as she examined the black antlers, Winnie’s final gift.

Isul shook his head. “No, not really. But between the the new antlers and the help of the Collective I’m reasonably sure I won’t kill Tristan…”

“So long as you don’t get too close?” she asked quietly.

Isul and I both nodded.

“I’m so sorry,” she said quietly. “I wish there was something I could do, but I know that minds, both organic and positronic, that are far superior to mine have tried.”

I sighed. “Even if we can’t be together right now, I’m hopeful the Collective will keep working on it.”

“That’s a long orbit problem,” Isul said, without meeting our gazes. “The closer orbit is what to do about the Theocracy.”

I nodded, “Our information about the Empire is limited to anything we can slice out of datastreams. What’s the fake me been doing since he took office?”

Grace’s mouth was set in a hard line. “He’s already passed legislation that makes it more difficult for private citizens to get Bio-droids. We think a formal review of military applications is next. Empress Lashell has also banned Bio-droid service from the Imperial palace. We assume she’s thinking that if the monarchs are seen not using Bio-droids that the noble families will follow suit to try and ingratiate themselves with the royals.”

“That harpy,” I spat. Then, more quietly, I added, “Has anyone said…anything? Anything about me? Is anyone suspicious of the clone?”

Grace shook her head. “If they are, they’re too afraid to say anything.”

An awkward silence settled over us, only broken when Isul got up and fixed a pot of caf for Grace and me. We sipped in silence until I got up the courage to ask, “Have you heard anything from Chet?”

Grace took a sip before speaking. “The Baron Lavigne has not made an appearance since the coronation. I don’t know if he’s dead or alive, but I haven’t been in contact with him despite being the commander of the fleet stationed here.”

I hung my head. “He’s either under heavy guard, or dead. I can’t imagine another reason Chet would keep his mouth shut over this.” Another person who suffered on account of me.

“Perhaps we should visit Enceladus, and either search for the Baron Lavigne or begin exposing things here?” Isul asked.

Grace said, “I like the idea of doing something.”

Just then, then door opened and Captain Marduk strolled in, accompanied by Captain Kali. When had the other Captain gotten here?

“I thought the Shakti was remaining in Collective space?” I asked.

Captain Kali’s eyes narrowed. “I thought better of it, and so did the Voice of the Collective. Is there a problem?”

“I don’t like secrets,” I said with a shrug. “Considering the entire point of this operation is to bring secrets to light, I don’t appreciate being kept in the dark about your presence. Were you trailing us, ready to burn us out of the sky should something have gone wrong?”

“Whether you dislike secrets or not, Prince, our culture has only survived by its secrecy. So yes, I did come along to keep an eye on things,” she shot back.

Grace looked back and forth between us before rising from her seat. “Excuse me, we haven’t been properly introduced. Captain Grace Nichols, of the Fourth Saturnian Fleet.” She extended a hand, and I could tell she was almost daring Captain Kali to bat it aside.

Instead, the other Captain grudgingly took Grace’s hand, followed by Captain Marduk, who appeared much more enthusiastic.

Once we were all settled around the holo-table, Captain Marduk brought up the schematics of the Jovian defense system. “We were hoping you might have deactivation codes for the orbital defense platforms,” he said, looking at Grace.

She shook her head. “When I was Admiral of the First Ganymede Fleet, I did. But now? It’s unlikely my codes still work.”

“I can run my codebreaker program with your inputs,” Isul said. “It’ll take time, certainly longer than we’d prefer,” but it’s safer than trying to land at Catamitus with the orbital defenses hitting us with everything they’ve got.”

“What about the stealth ships?” I asked. “Can’t they keep us hidden until we land?”

Grace shook her head. “This is certainly amazing technology. But we know from the stolen version that it is traceable, if you know what you’re looking for. And after I filed my report with the High Command, I’m sure the platform’s scanners are calibrated to search for those cloaking emission markers.”

Captain Marduk nodded. “They’ll also be on alert as soon as the orbital defenses go down. How many ships will stay behind around Ganymede even with the Martian fleet moving into position inside the asteroid belt?”

“Five heavy cruisers, each equipped with four outriders and twenty Centurion-flown small fighter craft,” Grace rattled off.

“Twenty five ships,” Captain Kali muttered.

Grace shrugged. “It’s the Capital and seat of Imperial power. They won’t leave it undefended, even with a Martian fleet poised to attack.”

I spoke up. “If we can get the access codes to the orbital defense platforms, then perhaps we can use them to target the other ships?”

Grace looked thoughtful. “It’s a good idea. My access codes and Isul’s codebreaker program should be enough to get us in.”

“But we’ll have to board one of the platforms and fight our way to the controls,” I said.

Isul shook his head. “Not you, Tristan.”

I felt myself bristle at his words. “What do you mean, not me? If you’re suggesting I stay behind for safety or some other bullshit, you can delete that thought.”

“No one’s suggesting that,” Isul replied, “But Grace and I can handle the platforms. You need to get to Catamitus and stop the Theocracy-bred clone. Only your DNA scan will allow palace access. Therefore, you have to be there.”

“But I need you there too,” I spluttered. I didn’t want to imagine going into battle without Isul by my side.

He shook his head and stared at the deck, his hair shielding his eyes. “I’ll put you in danger by coming along. What if the program goes rogue again? I could endanger the mission if I’m near you with all the heightened emotions.”

“Who will get us into the Palace systems, though?” I asked. “Nobody knows them like you do.”

Isul still didn’t look at me. “I can copy my access codes to a Collective Bio-droid.”

I wanted to scream, to tell him to look at me, to tell him how much I needed him there with me, danger or no danger. But instead I looked away as well and simply said, “If that’s what you think is best.”

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