by Gary Inbinder
Table of Contents|
The Prologue and Chapter 1
appeared in issue 239.
The Federation of New Earth is waging a foreign war with Algol 1 and is beset by corruption and strife within. Consul Finn, maneuvering against Consul Cato in a bid to make himself emperor, sends Aurelia to win over Republican Guard hero Ludwig, more familiarly known as “Luddy.”
Luddy and Aurelia come to realize that they are pawns in a power struggle. Luddy discovers Aurelia’s true nature and the secret of his own origins. Armed with the mysterious Aureus coin and the Spear of Fate, Luddy and Aurelia envision a new galactic Imperium that has a place for humans, androids and Algolians alike.
“How do you like my little garden, Colonel Zack?” Consul Finn smiled benignly as he queried his guest. Fifty-five years old, slender, steely-eyed, shaved head, and white skin stretched tautly over aquiline features and skull, Finn was one of the most powerful leaders of the Republican Federation.
Zack and Consul Finn reclined on couches next to a pool in the center of Finn’s peristyle garden. The Consul owned a Platinum and Gold restricted Capitol Hill building. He lived in the building’s penthouse, the first floor of which faithfully replicated an ancient Roman villa.
The sky above was a ceiling projection, programmed to simulate weather conditions in Latium at the time of the late Roman Republic. Artificial lighting carefully mimicked the natural; outdoor sounds, including chirping crickets, croaking frogs, warbling nightingales and hooting owls, entered the peristyle unobtrusively through carefully placed hidden speakers.
A colonnaded walkway surrounded simulated foliage giving off oxygen and fragrance indistinguishable from real flowers, herbs and shrubs. Marble and bronze statuary garlanded with artificial blossoms lined the walkway; colorful tiles, trickling pools and spouting fountains ornamented the peristyle. Mechanical eels slithered through sparkling mosaic-lined ponds, and efficient android slaves hovered silently, seeing to the needs of the master and his guests.
“It’s amazing, Excellency, that such a place exists in the midst of our bustling Capital City.” Like the Consul, Zack dressed in a toga; Zack’s garment simulated the style of the ancient equestrian order, while the Consul wore the robe of a patrician. Zack savored a strong, earthy red wine; finishing his drink, he admired the workmanship of his carved glass goblet. An attentive female android immediately refilled his glass.
“I’m very pleased, Colonel, with your after-action report on the Ludwig matter. You and my daughter handled the assignment discretely, and with great finesse. I believe my position as First Consul for the following year is secure, and you will not find me ungrateful.”
Zack responded with his most ingratiating smile; Finn’s anticipated elevation to First Consul assured Zack command of a Brigade, or perhaps a Division. “Thank you, Excellency. Permit me a comment about agent Finn’s performance. Without her, this matter might not have gone so smoothly.”
Finn smiled, amused by the Colonel’s obsequious praise of his daughter. “Indeed, Aurelia is a very talented and useful young woman; and here she comes now.”
Aurelia entered the peristyle quietly through the front door, dressed in the plain gray uniform of an I.S.P. agent. Acknowledging the Colonel with a brief nod, she approached her father, kissing his outstretched hand, and taking a seat by his side.
Consul Finn scowled playfully at his daughter, remarking, “You really should have changed, Aurelia. Your attire spoils the antique effect.”
“Forgive me, father, I’m on duty and must return to headquarters shortly.”
Finn altered his frown to a wry smile. “What a good little soldier you are; duty before everything.” Aurelia lowered her eyes, a faint blush spreading over her sun-bronzed face. “I’m serious, Aurelia. You made Ludwig perform admirably, and everything went off without a hitch; the hover car accident, the funeral, the way you handled the press. The pictures of Ludwig in full dress uniform, standing at attention by his parents’ graves with you at his side, are priceless. So when is the wedding to be?”
Aurelia looked directly at the Consul. “I’m sure you know that better than I do, father. I suppose once a decent interval has passed, and it best suits your purpose.”
Finn beamed; turning to Zack, he said, “You see, Colonel, what an exemplary child I have.”
“Exemplary, indeed, Excellency. I’d be honored to have Agent Finn in my Regiment.”
Aurelia’s pager bleeped. Excusing herself, she checked the message. Getting up from the couch, she bowed, and said, “I’m wanted at headquarters.” As a magnanimous gesture calculated to impress his guest, the Consul rose from his seat, and embraced his daughter.
Finn watched Aurelia leave, returned to his couch, and snapped his finger at an android. “More wine, and be quick about it.”
With Aurelia out of earshot, and his tongue loosened by alcohol, the Colonel ventured a risky observation. “I wonder what would happen if Ludwig knew the truth.”
Consul Finn glared at the Colonel. “What is truth?”
Regretting his momentary lapse in judgment, Zack replied, “Whatever you say it is, Excellency.”
“Exactly so, Colonel; Ludwig will know what I want him to know. He’s the hero of the hour, and will be a very loyal and useful son-in-law. He believes his parents were traitors, and that he redeemed them and himself by his actions. His reward will be a First Consul’s daughter, my patronage, and rapid promotion in the officer corps. You, my daughter, and his new best friend Dax will be his mentors. I hold the three of you accountable, so don’t screw up.”
“You can count on me, Excellency. However, Ludwig will require close watching; after all, he’s not really one of us.”
The Consul continued gazing at the Colonel; the glare softened, and some of his beneficence returned. He took a long drink of wine, wiping some dribble from his lip and chin with his toga sleeve. “Someone who rises from the bottom to the middle thinks he has reached the top. Ludwig may not yet be one of us, but he will be. That, my friend, is the truth.”
* * *
Zack left Consul Finn’s penthouse around one a.m., and the Consul retired to his study, accompanied by a female android servant. Early nineteenth century French Empire furnishings comprised the room’s décor, mimicking and incorporating the classical Roman style, with Napoleonic era eclecticism.
Consul Finn sat in a brass-studded leather and mahogany armchair behind a large, marble-topped desk. Sipping one hundred year old brandy and smoking a Churchill cigar, he relaxed, gazing at his reflection in a gilt-edged mirror at the opposite end of the study.
The mirror hung above a marble fireplace, with black and gold clocks on the mantelpiece. On either side of the fireplace, placed in wall niches, stood bronze statutes of Alexander the Great, Julius and Augustus Caesar, and Napoleon I. The Consul’s eyes roamed over the statues, alighting upon the likeness of Augustus, first Emperor of Rome.
Finn closed his eyes, as if daydreaming; sighing contentedly as the android carefully massaged his neck and shoulders. With his eyes still shut, he said, “You may go now, Berenice.”
“Yes, Excellency.” The android walked silently to the doorway, turning to bow before exiting.
“Berenice, tell the guards to bring Mistress Aurelia to the study; assuming, of course, that she returns before dawn.”
The android replied and left noiselessly, as if floating on air. Consul Finn leaned back in his chair, finished his brandy and cigar, and then went to sleep, his head filled with visions of Imperial glory.
Awakened by a knock on the door at three a.m. Finn shook his head, and poured a glassful of cold water from a crystal carafe. Splashing some of the liquid on his face, he swallowed an icy mouthful, cleared his throat, and said, “Come in.”
Aurelia entered the study, standing at attention before the Consul’s desk.
Smiling, the Consul said, “Please be seated, Aurelia; I won’t keep you long.”
“Thank you, father.”
As soon as Aurelia sat down, Finn asked, “What’s happening between you and Ludwig?” The Consul leaned forward over his desk; locking his hands together, his steely eyes fixed aggressively on his daughter, he added, “The elections are coming; we need to move this thing expeditiously.”
“I’m working on it, father.” Aurelia remained calm, meeting the Consul’s stare with her cool, impassive gaze. “Ludwig left a message on my answering machine. I’ll call him in the morning. He’s still disturbed by his parents’ death, which I suppose is understandable.”
Finn leaned back in his chair, relaxed a bit, and smiled. With a muffled, guttural laugh, he said, “I think you have a plan. Well then, out with it, so we can both go to bed.”
“Ludwig wants me; he also wants to know more about his parents. One of his desires can be easily satisfied; the other required some planning at I.S.P. headquarters. While you were entertaining Colonel Zack, I was busy working on the Ludwig files.
“Without going into all the details, Ludwig will discover a treacherous plot involving your opponent, Consul Cato, Ludwig’s parents, and Queen Artemisia of Algol. If all goes as planned, Ludwig will be fully convinced of his parents’ treachery, and become a determined enemy of Cato. His deep hatred of Algolians will be reinforced, our relationship strengthened, and of course, he’ll become your most devoted follower.”
A broad, affectionate smile spread across the Consul’s face. “You’ve planned well; I’ll leave this in your hands. However, please remember that I want your engagement announced early enough to be useful in my election campaign. The real coup, of course, will come when I, backed by Zack, Dax, Ludwig and the Republican Guard, denounce Cato before the Senate and the people. Timing and execution are crucial.”
Without the slightest change of expression, Aurelia questioned, “Have I ever failed to meet your expectations?”
Consul Finn rose from his chair, and walked to Aurelia, gently placing his hands on her shoulders. His flinty face softening into a smile of genuine fondness, he replied, “Never, Aurelia... never.” Aurelia got up, and Finn held her in his arms, kissing her forehead. “Now, get some sleep. We’ll talk more about this matter, tomorrow.”
After Aurelia left, Finn called one of his guards. “I’m sleeping here tonight; see that I’m not disturbed.” With guards posted at the door, Finn returned to his chair, pondering his daughter’s scheme as one cog in the wheel of his master plan. Eventually, he got up, walked to a sofa, and lay down for a couple of hours’ rest.
* * *
Ludwig and Dax left the Sky Bar around midnight. Patrons of the bar had recognized Ludwig and some came over to him, asking for autographs. Conscious of his position representing the Republican Guard, Ludwig responded in a friendly and courteous manner, but after three or four such interruptions he decided to call it a night.
Returning to his room, Ludwig checked his videophone for messages; Aurelia hadn’t returned his call. Ludwig was anxious to see Aurelia, partly because he was infatuated with her but also because she was his immediate I.S.P. superior.
Relying upon his security clearance, Ludwig had requested access to computer files relating to his parents. After scanning the files, he realized there were gaps in the information; specifically, the I.S.P. had redacted sections concerning his parents’ contacts in both the Capital City and Algol. When Ludwig questioned an I.S.P. Sergeant about the redactions, she told him the information was only available to those with a higher-level clearance; he would have to go to Aurelia for access.
Ludwig lay back in his reclining armchair; his head throbbed from too much anxiety and alcohol. He pressed a button on the videophone, and requested something for his headache. After a few minutes, there was a knock; Ludwig got up, walked to the door, and looked through the peephole. It was Bambi, the android server from the Sky Bar. She was wearing a short, white, translucent costume, and carrying a small tote bag. Opening the door, Ludwig said, “I’m surprised to see you; I just called the concierge to get something for my headache.”
Bambi smiled, replying, “That’s why I’m here, sir; the concierge sent me. I have drugs that will make you feel better, help you to relax, and sleep. I’m also an expert in massage techniques.”
Ludwig tried to smile, although the pain in his head made it difficult. “I’m grateful to the concierge and to you for being so thoughtful, but I just wanted something for my head.”
“Of course, sir; I’ll make that headache go away in no time.” Quietly approaching Ludwig, she gently placed her hand on his arm. “Please, sir; I asked for this assignment. The management wants to do everything it can to please you... and so do I.”
The android was exquisite, her skin soft and fragrant; she reminded Ludwig of Aurelia. “Alright, Bambi, if it’ll make you and the management happy.”
Bambi smiled, took Ludwig’s hand, and led him into the bedroom.
Copyright © 2007 by Gary Inbinder