Red Storm Over Ganymede
I snapped awake to a piercing scream. Isul’s body lay broken on the floor with a sparking hole in the torso. My eyes drifted to see Nona Regina bleeding out in front of me.
By the Red Storm, how had everything gone so bloody wrong?
Nona Regina took short, gasping breaths. I stumbled down the stairs of the dais and knelt next to her body. She looked as though all the years she had beaten back with treatments were crashing on her all at once. The lines in her face deepened visibly as she gasped for breath.
A skeletal hand reached up toward me, and despite all the anger I held toward her, I took it.
“Tristan, is that you? The real you?” she whispered.
A lump formed in my throat. “Yes, Nona, I’m here.”
She nodded, an almost imperceptible shiver of her head. “The Empire’s future rests in your hands now, grandson. I’ve tried to prepare you as I best knew how.”
I didn’t think this was the time to contend that her idea of ‘preparation’ was cloning a replacement for me when I didn’t follow her preset path, or trying to frame my Bio-droid for killing me.
“Why save me now, after all of this?” I asked, the bitterness creeping into my voice as I thought of every horrible thing that she had wrought.
She continued with a rasp, “Even if you prefer abominations, Tristan, you’re still family. You’re the last family left. Continue the line, and make the Empire strong again.” She gave a little chuckle that turned into a bloody cough. “I was running out of time anyway.”
With that said, her breath hitched once, twice, then stopped.
Regina Deschard, Empress Dowager of the Jovian Empire was dead.
Tears rolled down my cheeks. She was the most infuriating, contrary woman I had ever known. In the ten years of my existence we had seen eye to eye on almost nothing. But like she had said, we were family.
I slid the spear from where it was lodged in her body and gently laid her down on the floor next to Isul. His eyes were wide open. There was still some light behind them, and I prayed to any god that would listen that he was not dead too.
My fist clenched around the shaft of the spear as I looked at the Oracle who wore a gloating expression.
“I had no idea she had any feelings left in her dried-up heart,” he said casually. “Unfortunately for you, Tristan, you’re out of people to take the fall for you anymore. I’ll make sure you all have a beautiful state funeral before declaring that the Theocracy is stepping in to maintain control.”
I growled. “Was this your plan from the beginning? Kill us all and take command of the Empire yourself?”
The old man gave a sharp bark of laughter. “Ever since we foresaw and planted the bomb that destroyed your parents ship during the Martian peace talks, we have understood that only the guiding light of the Uranian Rings can truly move the Empire forward.”
My stomach dropped away and spots appeared behind my eyes. “You? You’re responsible for killing them? For killing the first Tristan?” My voice came out a choked whisper.
The Oracle shook his head slightly and smiled. “My child, you take such a narrow view of the universe. I simply carried out the future that was foreseen. I brought to fruition the world that was meant to be.”
“You’re crazy. Doesn’t any of this matter to you?” I shouted as I waved my spear to indicate the carnage that filled the throne room. The tapestries burned, the ground scorched by laser fire, the dead scattered across the floor. “Don’t any of these lost lives matter to you?”
“All life ends eventually, Tristan.” He kicked the metal arm of a Collective Bio-droid. “And these, well, can you really call them alive anyway?”
I bowed my head as white-hot anger rushed through me, burning away my sadness. The Oracle would die tonight, or I would. “They live and love more truthfully than you ever have. I can suffer no more of your charlatan tricks to gain control of this Empire.” I hefted the spear in my hands, raising it in an attack position.
“You think you can fight me and win?” he asked. “We’ve been through this before, and you lost badly. You won’t survive this, Tristan.”
It was my turn to grin. “I had something to lose that time, Oracle. This time it does not matter if I get out alive, only that you don’t.”
The knowing smile fell from his face as the Oracle’s mouth twisted in a sneer. “Then try, Prince Tristan, and we shall see what is the correct and true future: the one you feel in your heart, or the one I have foreseen.”
I tightened my grip on the spear then, and rushed the Oracle. Instead of striking out with the spear, however, I planted it in the floor and launched myself boot-first at the old man. My boots connected with his raised arm in a sickening crunch. I fell backward as the Oracle went sprawling to the floor.
His leg shot out as I came down, tripping me and sending me stumbling backward into a pile of Centurion bodies. Metal limbs clattered around me as I struggled to find my footing. Suddenly, the Oracle was above me, a wicked leer on his face.
“You’ve always been a disappointment, Tristan. You never performed like a Uranian-bred clone should have. Even starting from nothing, you were too willful,” he said. His spear shot down, and pierced my shoulder as I rolled to the side. The skin flayed open, and my blood spilled on the cold marble.
He continued as I crawled away, the pain and blood loss causing black spots in my vision. “Ten years of trying to corral you, your Grandmother hoping she could bring you around to our way of thinking. Her failure cost her her life as well. I authorized her replacement Generational Saint to be grown. The child will be an excellent ruler to replace you.”
When a Generational Saint was born, the old began to wither and die. I thought of Nona Regina’s white hair and old features. She must have known the Oracle was killing her. Perhaps that was why she had given me this chance. But I could feel the strength leaving my body. I thrust out with the spear, but the Oracle dodged easily, grabbed the shaft, and wrenched it out of my hand.
I was too weak to pick up a spear, but as my hand scrabbled around the floor for a weapon, it seized on an electro-saber. As the Oracle’s spear came down again, I activated the blade and sliced through his weapon, sending the pieces clattering to the floor. Backing up, I pulled myself up against a wall.
The Oracle wore a bemused expression. “You can’t win this, Tristan. I estimate by your blood loss that you’re almost ready to pass out. And when you do, I win.”
My breaths were labored, but I replied, “I’ll simply have to kill you before then, I guess. A Prince’s job is to smite the wicked and protect the Empire, after all.”
His expression darkened with fury. “If anyone will protect the Empire, it shall be the Order. Protect it from people like you who don’t recognize the threat the abominations represent. People like you who live in hedonistic pleasure, unaware that the devil lies beside them.”
“That’s a bit extreme for someone who just wants a good roll between the sheets,” I tried to chuckle.
“Our history is some kind of joke to you?” he shot back. “Three hundred years ago, the abominations tried to overthrow our ancestors. They cannot be trusted.” The Oracle held his spear in an attack position again.
“And when was the last time you talked to a real Bio-droid, without all your prejudice?” I cried back. “All they want is the chance to live their normal lives, same as any of us.”
The Oracle bared his teeth. “I won’t be corrupted as you have, Tristan. I have seen the future where you rule, and the Empire is lost!” He began charging toward me, brandishing his own electro-saber.
That took the air out of my lungs. Could he be right? I raised my own saber and blocked the blow, but my arms were shaking with the strain. “That’s a lie,” I said. The Oracle pressed his advantage against me, backing me up against the wall.
“But wouldn’t you like to know?” the Oracle tempted me. “If you’re so noble about doing what is best for the Empire, then you’ll at least listen to me.”
I shook my head vehemently. “No. Your counsel has proven untrustworthy. Whether you see the true future or not, Oracle, you have abused your position to crush those you don’t agree with.” I slashed at him with the electro-saber, its blade humming with power.
“And you have abused your position by trampling the sacred truths we hold most dear,” he yelled. The mask of calm was slipping from his face, and flashes of the anger boiling beneath the Oracle’s beatific demeanor broke through.
He swung downward, and I narrowly blocked. My form was sloppy, and his blade slid along mine where it struck the pommel and sent vibrations ringing through my hand. I cried out in pain and dropped the electro-saber as the Oracle raised his own blade to my throat.
“Saints guide you, Tristan,” he said, but before the Oracle could cut my throat the blade of another electro-saber burst from his chest. My vision was foggy as the Oracle fell to the ground, leaving Isul’s mangled form standing behind him.
“Isul …” I whispered as I slumped down against the wall. “You’re alive?”
He sat down next to me, held my hand in his remaining palm as I gazed into his amber eyes. “My true programming has always been to protect you, Tristan, no matter the cost to me.”
“What cost is that?” I choked out.
Isul smiled, the smile of those who know they have reached the end of a journey. “This body can’t sustain my program requirements any longer, Tristan. My systems are shutting down for good, I’m afraid.”
Tears rolled down my face as I shook my head. “No. No. I can’t go forward alone.”
He squeezed my hand again, and I could see the light behind his eyes fading. “As long as you remember me, I’ll always be with you. Thank you for a good life, Tristan.”
With that, the light faded completely from Isul’s amber eyes and his hand slackened. With my light gone, night closed in around me.