Chapter 35:

Toward the Palace

Red Storm Over Ganymede


**Tristan**

The Shakti did not make a graceful landing. The ship was small, but still far too large to fit inside any of the landing pads on Catamitus. With a thud, we settled the Shakti just outside the dome. Captain Kali led a rapid exodus as we piled into smaller vehicles.

I was tense as the hovercraft I boarded sped toward the city I had once called home, but which now felt as alien as all the strange places I had visited over the last few months. We would no doubt fight people I had trusted my security to for my whole life, and I nursed an ember of hope that I wouldn’t have to harm any of them. Or that they would harm me.

The spaceport was in disarray as private craft jostled for space to exit. No doubt the wealthy of the city were fleeing to their own holdings, hopeful that they would not be caught in the crossfire. I could not blame them, and had no desire to hurt the nobles of the Empire. My quarrel was not with them.

But the Oracle would pay. He would pay for stealing my life.

Captain Kali glanced over from the seat beside mine. “If you grip that barrel any tighter, we might have a few ventilation holes in the roof,” she said dryly.

I let out a breath. “Sorry, I’m just nervous.”

“Times like these I pity you creatures of flesh. My emotion subroutines have been deactivated since the battle began, and I am all the stronger warrior for it,” she said.

I felt my teeth grinding together. “And yet, some would say that without emotion, what is all this worth?”

Captain Kali never got the chance to reply, because soon our hovercraft was rocked by an explosion directly in our path that sent me into the side hull of the craft and all five of Kali’s remaining arms into my face. Quickly regaining her composure, Kali ordered the caravan of vehicles to stop, and when the smoke from the explosion cleared, a huge crater in the street emerged.

“By the Voice, what are they doing? Shelling their own city?” Captain Kali asked.

I shook my head, troubled by this development. Grandmother, snakelike as she was, would never have approved surface-damaging weapons to be used inside the city. Why risk reducing your own fortress to rubble, after all. I could only imagine that the other me, or the Oracle pulling his puppet strings, was desperate to stop us.

As I turned toward Captain Kali to answer her question, however, the smoke finally completely cleared, and I audibly gasped as I could see the gun barrels of a fortress tank come into view. Tall as a three-story building and loaded with the most destructive weapons imaginable, these fortress tanks were slow, but could take down ships in low orbit.

No sooner had the smoke cleared than the fortress tank began rumbling forward, as a small fleet of support craft disgorged Imperial Centurions.

Captain Kali turned to me. “Is there another way to get to the Imperial Palace? This was the most direct route, but if the strategic files I’m accessing are any clue, that fortress tank could decimate us before we ever got past it.”

I looked around frantically at the elevated highways that crisscrossed Catamitus. It was a good bet that the Emperor had ordered fortress tanks to guard every access point that led to the palace. But as my eyes scanned further past the massed troops, they saw my old favorite way of traveling incognito during my party days. “We’ll never get the support craft all through, but the pedestrian gravity tubes run all through the city. We can take them to the palace. I know a back entrance that might get us inside.”

Captain Kali nodded. “Very well. I’m communicating the plans to the other Captains. My lieutenants will put up a good fight here to cover our escape.” She motioned to a Bio-droid whose body was covered in holographic micro-projectors. “You, take the Prince’s form. Let them see ‘us’ here while he gets out of here.” The Bio-droid nodded its assent, and the projectors spun to life before it scanned me and replicated a fairly convincing simulacrum of me.

“My eyes aren’t nearly that close together,” I grumbled. “And if anyone gets too close, they’ll definitely be able to tell this is a hologram.”

Captain Kali grunted. “It doesn’t have to stand up to close scrutiny, just make sure they think from afar that you’re still here.”

“But if you’re staying here and distracting them, who’s going with me to the Palace?” I asked, suddenly afraid of being on my own again.

A warm paw settled over my shoulder. “I shall escort you, Prince Tristan,” Captain Marduk solemnly swore.

Captain Kali smirked. “About time you got here, Captain.”

Marduk’s sphinx face wore the ghost of a smile. “You left quite the mess to clean up at the spaceport, Kali.”

“I’ve always been a take-point kind of creature,” she retorted before drawing the four blades and one blaster she had holstered. “This fortress tank will be a smoking pile of slag by the time I’m done with it.”

Captain Marduk gave Captain Kali a challenging look. “Then I expect to see you at the palace when this is all over.”

*****

Air rushed past my face as our small strike force clung to the gravity tube’s handles. It was the fastest I had ever traveled using them, and likely far beyond the mechanism’s safety limits. But our time was drawing short. Captain Marduk had received reports that even with the Orbital Defense Platform’s support, the Collective ships were slowly beginning to lose ground. It was only a matter of time before we lost unless I could expose the clone, the Oracle, and Nona Regina’s deception.

My prediction had held true, and the gravity tubes were deserted of pedestrians and soldiers alike. Nobody wanted to risk going out, and they were too small to effectively transport troops to key defensive positions in the city. But for a small group like ours, traveling this way was perfect.

The line connecting us to the central ring that circled the palace grounds was coming up, and I directed the others to make the necessary jump. The handles moved us effortlessly to the inward-bound line, and soon we had reached the central hub.

During the trek, I had thought hard about how we would get inside. The entrance I had used to escape so often with Isul - through the guard barracks - was likely sealed, or under heavy guard. The main gate was no-doubt also heavily guarded, as were the hovercar ports and the landing pad.

Which left my backup escape portal as our likeliest entry point. The backup escape portals were built into the palace’s design as a way to quickly and securely get each member of the Imperial Family out should the palace ever fall under siege. Each member of the family was assigned a single one, and that would be the only one they would ever know about. No other family member knew where a personal exodus point of another family member was, in case of capture and mental manipulation. The existence of my exodus point was a guarded secret, known only to myself, Isul, and my former head of security Captain Van. I only hoped that he wound not think to look for the use of such an exit in reverse.

In the case of my escape portal, it dropped me down below the palace into the gravity tube network, in a blocked off side maintenance tunnel where a genetic scrambler, set of nondescript clothing, and weapon awaited.

I prayed that the code had not been changed since my replacement took the throne.

I indicated to Captain Marduk that we were approaching the maintenance tunnel. It had been blocked off by plasteel bricks, but a well-aimed grenade blew a hole large enough for us to enter. Upon entering the blocked-off section, the gravity grew noticeably stronger, and my feet settled on the floor. Walking quickly, I led the group to the other end of the tunnel toward what appeared to be a nondescript maintenance hatch. I crouched down, with the Bio-droids surrounding me. I quickly entered the code, and breathed a sigh of relief that it remained the same. Van must not have known I was replaced to not have changed the code yet. That code only released the keypad, however, and it popped out on hinges to reveal a genetic scanner beneath. I placed my hand on the pad, and breathed a second sigh of relief when it pinged a soft affirmative to my identity, and the hatch swung outward.

I motioned the team inside the hatch, then followed in last before securing and locking it once again with my genetic code and the inner keypad.

We crept down the hallway, and I looked at the emergency supplies that could have sustained me were I in the opposite position of being attacked versus being the attacker. When we reached the hallway’s end however, I went for the door, ready to use my genetic code once more to get us out of here and into the palace proper.

I never had the chance, however, as the door swung open and Captain Van entered, followed by my clone.

Steward McOy
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Miao Miao
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