Chapter 36:

A Mirror, Darkly

Red Storm Over Ganymede


**Tristan**

Van’s eyes widened as he saw me and the cadre of Bio-droids, all pointing weapons at him and the clone.

“Thanks for delivering this little one to us,” I laughed bitterly as I gestured to the clone. “Makes half of our job much easier.”

Van’s gaze darted back and forth between me and my clone. “So it really is true. There is a clone running around. Problem is, which one is the real one?” he asked, his voice harsh, his face set in a grim mask.

The clone spoke then, and it set my teeth on edge to hear my own stolen voice coming out of it. “I am the Emperor, Lieutenant. I demand you return me to the throne room immediately and I order you to shoot this clone.”

I sighed. “I convinced you to sleep with me once after coming back to the palace totally wasted. You obliged, we had great sex, a really awkward morning after, and I promised to never tell your girlfriend. Happy?”

Van’s face was the color of the Red Storm, but he nodded. “And this?” he asked, tilting his head toward the clone.

“A bit of plotting cooked up by Grandmother and the Oracle, I’m afraid,” I answered.

Van’s jaw clenched, and with a grim face he shot the clone in the back. The clone crumpled to the floor, and for a moment I thought he was dead. But then I saw the telltale rise and fall of the chest that indicated it was still unfortunately alive. Still, seeing my old security guard shoot me in the back was chilling.

“I’ve been suspicious of this Tristan from the beginning. He was far too compliant with whatever Empress Lashell or the Empress Dowager suggested he do. He lacked your … spark,” Van said. “I brought him here as a final test. He didn’t know the code to get into the bunker.”

“Still, I can’t imagine what you were thinking about doing to him afterward. Were you going to kidnap him? I mean, you did just abduct your boss at gunpoint after all,” I said with a smirk as I holstered my weapon.

Van winked. “He wasn’t my real boss, luckily.”

Captain Marduk stepped forward then, and I made the awkward introductions. “Can we trust this man, Prince Tristan?” he asked finally.

Van cleared his throat. “I’ve been the Prince’s head of security for several years, sir. Frankly, I’m a lot more trustworthy than you lot.”

Marduk raised one eyebrow as his unreadable sphinx features slipped into place. “And yet you were the one who let him get replaced by a clone, right under your nose.”

Van bristled at that, until I placed a hand on his chest. “Calm down, both of you. We’re going to have to work together to get to Nona Regina and the Oracle. Van, can I count on you?”

Van pressed his fist over his heart. “Though I may die, my service is yours to command, my liege.”

I nodded. “Good. I think I may have a plan.”

*  *  *

I dressed in the Imperial raiment my clone had been wearing while two of the Bio-droids bound his wrists and feet. My stomach churned as I slipped the clothes over my bare skin, and the irony that the first time I was becoming the Emperor was by taking the clothes off of another me. I was stealing someone else’s life again. Would I ever enjoy a universe where I was the one and only me?

Captain Marduk commanded the two Bio-droids to stand guard over the unconscious clone before he radioed our progress to Captain Kali. She was still deep in battle with the fortress tank, and had few words of comfort to offer before we set off again.

“Are you sure you want to put yourself in danger for this, Emperor?” Van asked me.

“First, don’t call me Emperor. It’s certainly not a title I’ve been granted,” I said as I turned away from him and felt my face flush. “And yes, I’m definitely sure. I owe everyone in the Empire the truth.” I did not add to Van that the truth would include the truth about my own status as another clone of the original Tristan. That was something that I would have to face later, no matter how much I dreaded it.

Van’s warm hand settled on my arm. “That desire for truth? That’s why you’re always going to be the Emperor to me. It’s good to have you back, sir.”

A lump formed in my throat. I didn’t deserve such loyalty from anyone, but Lieutenant Van’s devotion touched me all the same. “T-thank you, Van,” I choked out.

Van patted my arm before he led the group out of the bunker. We ascended in a vertical gravity tube that led up into the palace. The handles led to a closed hatch that, when opened, were revealed to be paving tiles in a disused section of a long-closed salon. Van hustled the very noticeable Bio-droids out of view of the cameras.

“We need to disable palace security sensor scans,” he said. “Or this lot will trigger all the alarms as unregistered Bio-droids.”

I cursed. “I wish Isul were here. This would be a snap for him.”

Captain Marduk chuckled. “Do not think so lightly of our own codebreaking ability, Prince Tristan.” He motioned one of his scouts forward - a Bio-droid with a female appearance who had an elongated, bare head covered with curling designs. “Senna here will have your security feed looped in a moment.”

Senna nodded and went to work immediately, plugging into the palace security system. Within a few tense minutes, she had overridden the controls for the camera and sensor systems. I made a mental note, should I ever live in this palace again, I would have to do major security upgrades.

“Where are Nona Regina and the Oracle?” I asked Van.

“They are monitoring the battles from the throne room, along with Empress Lashell. I was ordered to accompany the Emperor to the toilets when I kidnapped him and took him down to the bunker to test my theory,” Van replied.

I grimaced. “Let’s hope they all think he had a really bad case of indigestion to explain his absence.”

“I don’t like leaving your fate to one man alone,” Captain Marduk said as our group began marching down the hallway.

I shook my head. “There’s no way we can march into the throne room, laser cannons blazing. There will be far too many guards for your Bio-droids to take out. Besides, this isn’t about revenge, it’s about justice. The high courts will decide their fates once this is all over.”

“You have the flash grenades?” Marduk asked.

I nodded and patted my pockets. The plan was for me to set off flash grenades once I was secured in the throne room. These would blind and stun the guards, giving the Bio-droids under Marduk a chance to secure the throne room without resorting to killing the masterminds behind the scheme to replace me and control the Empire.

“Then everything should be in place. We will move to our assigned positions,” Marduk said as he brought up the map of the palace. I had shown them the best places to hide in the servants’ corridors surrounding the throne room. “May we work as one.”

“Saints preserve us,” Van muttered as the Bio-droid soldiers moved out toward their positions. “I expect the full story some day how you got in touch with a bunch of rogue Bio-droids and managed to convince them to help you regain the throne.”

I smiled. “Let’s just say for now that if everything goes well, things will be much better for the Bio-droids of the Empire.”

We arrived at the ornate carved doors of the throne room, and I took a deep breath. This was the first time I was going to come face to face with my attackers since they had poisoned me with alokir powder. I had to be perfect in my performance as the clone, or risk tipping them off. Lull them into complacency, then strike.

Van opened the heavy door, and I stepped forward into a flurry of activity. A huge holo-table was centered in the middle of the room, having risen from the seal built into the floor. Around it stood Lashell, my clone’s bride, the Oracle, shouting orders through a communicator to move troops to a different position, and slightly back behind them, my Grandmother.

Nona Regina appeared to have aged more in a few months than she had in years. Concern gripped me as I noticed the settled wrinkles in her cheeks, the hair that had lost its luster. I tamped down my feelings of unease. This was the woman who had sold me for thirty pieces of silver, and I had shed every tear I could spare.

Military personnel carried out the Oracle’s orders, seemingly without question or deference to the will of the Emperor or his family. Were they blind that in all but name their Emperor had been replaced by this man? Or were they simply toadies who clearly understood who was the real power behind the throne now?

“Get more Centurions to position three,” Lashell yelled out. “That female Bio-droid is dangerously close to getting through our forces.”

I resisted a smile as I thought of Captain Kali cutting down wave after wave of Imperial Centurions.

She turned to me, “There you are, Tristan, finally. Get over here. We need your genetic authorization to mobilize more of the reserve Centurions.”

I meekly did as I was told and placed my hand on the control board, where it registered me as Emperor Tristan, and I saw the activation command sent to two hundred more Centurions. I held my breath, unsure whether or not the ground troops the Collective had landed would be able to survive that kind of onslaught.

I kept my face passive as I stepped backward from the control board, though I risked a glance up at the Oracle. Despite his extrasensory powers, the old man seemed to not have noticed that I was not, in fact, the docile creature he had grown.

Looking around the throne room, I considered the best place to toss the flash grenades for maximum impact. There would only be one chance to capture the most troops in their blast.

My spine tingled as Nona Regina’s thin voice cut through my planning. “Tristan, come here,” she ordered.

I nodded and shuffled over to her. Up close, her rapid aging was even more noticeable. Her eyes were beginning to cloud, and her veins were clearly visible through her hands. The veneer was beginning to crack, though I had no clue why.

“What do you need, Grandmother?” I asked, in as dull a voice as possible.

Her fingers brushed my face. “Just to see you. We are in danger, and only the Saints know what may happen. The … other you is coming. For me, I think. He wants revenge on us all for the lies we told him.”

My hand involuntarily clenched. Did she know that I was not the second clone? Was she baiting me, trying to draw me out? I found it hard to believe she was actually concerned by the fact that her betrayal had all but killed me.

“Lies?” I asked stupidly.

Nona Regina patted my hand. “No need to concern yourself with that, Tristan. It is all in the past. Soon I will be in the past as well.”

I wanted to ask, to figure out what she was talking about, but I guessed this Tristan must have already known what was happening to Nona Regina.

She broke contact with me then and glided off to another section of the holotable. I was momentarily alone, and fingered the flash grenades in my pocket. It was now or never.

I flipped the activation switch on them, then tossed all four onto the holotable, ducked down, and shut my eyes tightly. With a bang, the room illuminated to a brightness that leaked through my eyelids. I heard cries of alarm and screams of indignation. Through it all, my fingers were on the button of my communicator that sent the signal to Marduk and the others to begin their assault.

I heard the doors all around the throne room bang open, and the sounds of shots being fired into the crowd. Screams rang out over the smoke and light, and I cracked an eye open to see the Bio-droids disabling the military members.

With glee, I saw Marduk zap Lashell with a stun beam. She crumpled to the floor, her voluminous gown spreading out around her.

But no sooner had Marduk taken down the false Empress, than he was under attack by the Oracle himself. Dammit; the old man was blind. Flash grenades would have little effect on him.

Captain Marduk was a fierce warrior. He blocked several hits from the Oracle, and even tore into the old man’s side, shredding his robes. But the Oracle’s staff shot out and tripped Marduk, who went sprawling to the floor. Faster than I could blink, the Oracle’s staff punched straight through Marduk’s chest, leaving a gaping hole and sparking wiring.

Marduk’s eyes went blank as I screamed his name.

I picked up a vibro-blade off the floor and rushed toward the Oracle. To the black depths of space with restraint. I was done with that man.

The blade hit his staff with a metallic, popping shriek as he blocked my hit. I grunted and pressed my weight against him, forcing the Oracle to favor his wounded side. I rained blow after blow against him, but despite his age, the old man seemed to know exactly where and when to block my hits.

Finally, I tapped the vibro-blade to his wound, and with a satisfying groan he fell to one knee. I kicked his hand, and send the staff flying across the room before pressing the blade to his neck.

“Y-you are under arrest, Oracle, for conspiracy to overthrow the the Jovian throne,” I stuttered.

He coughed, a wheezing laugh. “And if you place me under arrest, Tristan? How will you save the Baron Lavigne?”

Dammit. He had Chet.

With a growl, I let the vibro-blade clatter to the floor.

Steward McOy
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Miao Miao
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