Chapter 37:

Isul, Engaged

Red Storm Over Ganymede


I paced back and forth across the tiny command center of the orbital defense platform. “Any word?” I asked Grace. While Captain Kali was carving up the fortress tank, we had lost all contact with Tristan’s strike team on the surface.

“Not since two minutes ago,” Grace replied. Her troops, with Winnie’s assistance, had done an admirable job of using the platform’s weapons to even the odds facing the smaller Collective fleet of ships. But even with the Regina One damaged, there were still four Imperial battle cruisers pummeling the station and the other ships with laser fire.

“Hold up,” the comm officer said. “We’re receiving a transmission from the palace.”

All the screens in the command center lit up with the face of the Oracle, who stood over Tristan’s bowed and cuffed form.

“Citizens of the Empire, and vile assailants,” he began. “We have captured the rogue clone of our beloved Emperor. If you wish him to live, all foreign ships will stand down and immediately retreat from Jovian territory. You have one decaclik to comply, or we will turn the force of our Imperial might against you. Even now, our fleets fly to our aid.”

There had to be something else I could do. My circuits were frying the longer I waited here with Tristan in danger. “Permission to take a small ship, Captain?”

Grace arched a brow. “To where, exactly?”

I looked at her as though she had suffered a head injury. “The palace, of course. I can’t wait out the rest of this battle up here without knowing I did everything possible to return Tristan to the throne and set things right in the Empire,” I said.

Grace shook her head. “That’s crazy talk. You’ve done more than most, keeping him alive all these months.”

Winnie’s face blinked into the nearest console screen. “There are two small ships still attached to the platform.”

“Not helping,” Grace added.

Winnie continued as if Grace had said nothing. “They’re not fast. Mostly used for cargo transport. But they’ll get you down to the surface of Ganymede, and they’ve got the clearance codes to get you past any Imperial fire.”

I looked at Grace. “I need to go.”

She sighed. “It’s a bad idea, Isul. I promised Tristan I would keep you safe.”

“That promise won’t matter if he dies down there, Grace,” I retorted.

A pointed finger with a shiny red nail poked into my chest. “And of course, nobody but you can save him? There are plenty of experienced warriors down there who have a better chance of getting in there than you, Isul.”

I gazed down at the worn deck plating. “But he doesn’t matter to any of them the way he does to me.”

Grace was silent for a few moments before placing her hand on my chest and pushing me gently away. “Or me, you conceited Bio-droid. We’ll cover your exodus. Go get our boy.”

My emotional subprocessor hummed with warmth as I nodded and headed toward the cargo ship. I flew up the ladders and catwalks that led to docking bay number one. When I arrived, I grimaced at the ancient cargo tug docked here. It was ugly and utilitarian - no Princeps for certain - but it was my one ticket to get back to Tristan.

Before I could open hatch to the ship and climb in, however, Winnie’s face appeared on the workstation built into the wall of the docking bay. “You wouldn’t think of stranding my consciousness here on this lump of steel, would you?” she asked.

“No Ma’am,” I replied before plugging in. As Winnie’s consciousness flowed into me, I took comfort in the familiar, algorithmic feeling of her presence. “I can certainly use all the help you can offer, too.”

I settled at the ship’s controls. With a single transmitted command from Winnie, the docking bay doors opened, and I lifted off. Behind me, the battle raged on. But I only had eyes for Ganymede, shining in front of me.

*  *  *

Catamitus was a smoking ruin. Rebuilding would take months, if not years. Even the particle barrier around the palace had finally faltered, and my metal heart broke as I could see damage to the outer ring. I idly wondered what priceless artifacts had been destroyed.

“I’m setting us down on the roof of the outer ring,” I said to Winnie.

Her face was grave on the screen. “No dice. Sensors show it’s electrified. It’ll short-circuit both of us. I’ll take over computer control and hover over the old palace. You’ll have to jump from there.”

“What about you, Winnie?” I asked.

“I left a little bit of my essence in your systems, Isul. Enough to help you get past any nasty surprises of the technical sort. But the rest of me needs to find somewhere to set down and perhaps a new body to download myself into. I imagine there are more than a few damaged Bio-droids or Centurions I could commandeer. I’ll come back as fast as possible then.”

I nodded. “Otherwise I’m on my own.” I surrendered the controls to Winnie then and flung open the cargo entrance. The palace I had once considered home shone beneath me. And I jumped.

I hit the roof and rolled, grateful for the first time that my antlers had been broken earlier. The pulsing red command still burned inside me, but I shoved it down. That bit of treachery would not stop me.

Almost as soon as I had hit the roof, two Centurions rose from hidden nooks and began firing. I jumped behind a vent, narrowly missing one of their blasts that ricocheted off of the metal with a hiss.

I couldn’t directly harm a citizen of the Empire, but Centurions didn’t count toward that rule. I pulled off the shattered remain of one of my antlers and waited. When the Centurion came around the corner, I thrust the jagged pieced of black plasteel into its chest cavity before whipping its metal body into the other Centurion, sending them both careening into the courtyard below.

I scanned the roof and found the hidden elevator that had carried the Centurions upward. Stepping inside, I reversed the controls and rode the lift downward into the palace proper. It opened into a large storage area full of Centurions that had not yet received activation commands. As I stepped into the space I let my ocular sensors sweep the room for any hidden activation switches for the powered-down Centurions.

Satisfied that I would not inadvertently cause myself to be gunned down, I moved through the room. The weapons rack on the wall caused a momentary delay. I couldn’t utilize any of the weapons, but I strapped on an armor plate over my chest. It would, at the very least, protect my core systems from a few rounds of laser fire.

I risked plugging into the Imperial DataNet as well. I was hopeful I could still access the palace as I once had, but as I had suspected, my codes had been deleted ever since the clone had replaced Tristan. I could still get into the public files, but anything private was out of reach without employing my codebreaking program. I wished Winnie were still here to lend a hand, but it appeared I was on my own.

I knew the chrono was likely ticking down the time left of Tristan’s life, but I stole a few precious moments to run the codebreaker program and reinstall my access codes to the palace. The process would be much quicker with full access to the DataNet. My search for where Tristan was being held turned up nothing, but I downloaded the Centurion sweep patterns in order to avoid them.

The palace was nearly deserted as I crept through the corridors and hallways toward the throne room. It was the most likely place they would be holding Tristan, in full view of the camera drones so that his execution could be broadcast live to the Empire. I deduced that even if the Collective ships left Jovian space after the hour of ceasefire was up, my Tristan would still die. The Oracle and Empress Dowager would certainly not leave this thread to unravel again.

Steward McOy