by Gary Inbinder
Table of Contents|
Chapter 7, part 1
appear in this issue.
Ludwig opened his eyes. He was alone in his hotel suite, wearing a clean white linen robe, and lying face down in bed. Bambi’s scent lingered; the familiar, floral sprig and her business card lay on the pillow beside him. Opening his right hand, Ludwig gazed at the gold coin in his palm.
He retained vivid memories of the previous night’s experience, sensing that he somehow survived a great ordeal. He got out of bed, walked to the bathroom, showered and shaved. Studying his profile in the shaving mirror, he compared it to the face on the coin; there was more than an uncanny resemblance. The faces were virtually identical.
Ludwig had some experience with recreational drugs, so he knew what it was like to come down from a high. As the early morning euphoria wore off, his rational mind gained control. He wondered what happened to him, where he had been, and for how long. Checking the calendar clock, he realized that it was Saturday morning; he recalled last seeing Bambi the previous Thursday evening. Wherever he had been, he’d lost a whole Friday.
He dressed, and then called Aurelia, on a secure line. “Aurelia, I need to see you, as soon as possible.”
“Where are you, Luddy?”
“In my suite, at the hotel.”
“Remember the little gazebo on the hillock, in Memorial Park?”
“Yes; of course.”
“Meet me there in thirty minutes.” She got off the line without another word; Ludwig detected urgency in her voice.
The park was crowded on a warm, sunny Saturday morning. There were joggers and bicyclists exercising, parents pushing babies and toddlers in carriages and strollers, children flying radio-controlled model intergalactic liners, and dog-walkers with their purebred, pampered canines.
Ludwig spotted Aurelia standing near the gazebo; he waved, and she returned his greeting. Wearing an attractive floral print designer sundress, broad brimmed hat and sunglasses, she looked like any other fashionable young woman in the privileged Gold section of the park, meeting her boyfriend for a date.
When he got within about twenty feet of her, she ran to him, grabbed his shoulders, and kissed him on the cheek, whispering, “Luddy, we’re being watched.”
Aurelia led him past the parking area, to a hover cabstand. Entering the taxi, she gave the android driver directions to a trendy, Republic Boulevard restaurant.
Sitting in the cab, Ludwig turned to her, and said, “Aurelia, I...”
Before he could say another word, she surreptitiously kicked his shin, remarking, “Lovely weather isn’t it?”
“Luddy, you have no idea how busy I’ve been planning for the wedding; it’s positively hectic.”
Ludwig played along with her small talk until they reached the restaurant.
They entered the fashionable bistro and were greeted by an unctuous android maitre d’. “Good morning, Colonel Finn, and Lieutenant Ludwig; welcome to the Bon Vivant. A table for two has been prepared in our patio garden. Belinda will escort you. If there is anything I can do for you, please do not hesitate to ask.”
Ludwig and Aurelia followed the “B” android until, just past the kitchen, Aurelia tugged Luddy’s sleeve. She led him down a corridor to their right, where they boarded an elevator. Descending two levels, they exited the elevator and entered a dark tunnel, where a small electric tramcar was ready and waiting for them. Sitting in the tramcar, Aurelia took an electronic keypad from her purse, and punched in directions. The car rumbled down the track; bluish-yellow sparks crackled along the trolley, casting shadows on the murky tunnel’s drab, concrete walls.
After about a four-mile journey underneath the downtown area, the car halted. Exiting the electric tramway, Aurelia and Ludwig boarded an elevator that took them to a garage, where they entered a waiting hover-car. Aurelia piloted the hover-car along a dimly lit two-mile long underground passageway ending in a tunnel opening onto a secluded green belt on the northern outskirts of the Capital City.
Aurelia drove skillfully, at high speed, entering a dense forest of tall pines and birches. Several miles north of the city, near a main tributary of the Neo-Tiber, she turned down a narrow, gravel pathway, stopping near a steep hill.
She entered a combination into her keypad, opening a holographically camouflaged entrance in the hillside. Aurelia drove into the hidden fortress, and parked the hover-car as the hillside closed behind them. “Alright, Luddy, we’re in a secure area. Let’s get some breakfast, and then we can begin your debriefing.”
The hidden fortress was a Finn faction safe house. Aurelia took Ludwig to her office; an android orderly brought them a light meal of orange juice, toast and coffee. Ludwig sat next to Aurelia, handed her the gold coin and told her all the details of the evening he spent with Bambi. His tale included the perilous journey through the forest, the frozen river, the castle, and the encounter with Cato and his knights.
After hearing his story, Aurelia commented, “I’m afraid she loaded you up with ‘Alucinor,’ a potent hallucinogen. Fortunately, one dose doesn’t normally produce serious after-effects; however, I’m going to have our doctors examine you, just to make sure.”
Ludwig sipped some coffee, and then grumbled, “Thanks, Aurelia. I hope I won’t need a brain transplant.”
Aurelia examined the gold coin on her desk, while typing information into her laptop. Still concentrating on the computer screen, she said, “I’m sorry, Luddy. Neither father nor I thought Cato would move so fast. We expected Bambi to establish a relationship with you before bringing in the psychotropic heavy artillery.” Aurelia stopped typing; she had found the information. “Here it is; take a look.”
Ludwig scanned the computer screen; there was a picture of the obverse and reverse of the coin, along with a biographical sketch of Ludovicus Maximus Augustus. Once again, Ludwig noted the uncanny resemblance, remarking, “Sure looks like me. Who was he?”
Aurelia grinned. “Didn’t they teach you any history at the Silver Academy?”
“They taught us the basic stuff, about how the ancient Earth ancestors developed the hyperspace drive, explored our galaxy, and pioneered the first neo-Earth colonies. They also taught us about the destruction of old Earth and the settlement of inferior humans in the nearby Algolian system.
“Our ancestors used the Algolians as cheap labor, bringing many of them to this planet. With Plotinus Industries’ development of more sophisticated androids, there was little use for Algolians; that was the beginning of the rebellion and the continuing Algolian wars. The rest, as they say, is history.”
“And you don’t remember anything about Ludovicus?”
“Not a thing; if he ever came up in class, in a text, or an exam, my mind was elsewhere, probably on football, martial arts, tactics and strategy... or girls.”
Aurelia smiled, and said, “That’s not surprising, since he’s associated with a forbidden cult. Your coin is a Gold Aureus, or rather an excellent modern copy of an Aureus. The inscription on the reverse is, “Ludovicus.Max.Aug, DN,” which is an old Latin abbreviation of Ludovicus Maximus Augustus, Dominus Noster, or Ludovicus Augustus the Great, our Lord. The device is cult symbolism; we’d need to do more research to discover its meaning. The Aureus dates back five millennia; the only known original is in a highly restricted, non-display section of the Republican Museum.”
“So tell me about the legend, and what it has to do with me, Cato and your father.”
“There are several interesting coincidences relating to the legend that might be of significance. First, there is your name and your striking resemblance to old Ludovicus. Second, your ancestors, the Nordic peoples of old Earth, settled the northern lands, where both you and Ludovicus were born. Third, the ancient prophecy said Ludovicus would return five thousand years after his death, and this happens to be the five thousandth year. Finally, you are a great popular hero, and we are in the last days of a struggle that will determine whether the future belongs to our faction, or to Consul Cato, and his. These facts are also consistent with the prophecy, since it was foretold that the reincarnated Ludovicus would choose between one of two warring factions.”
“Okay, Aurelia; where do we go from here?”
“I want you to see our doctor, and then rest here while I talk to father.” Aurelia took Ludwig’s hands in hers, kissed him, and then nestled in his arms. “I’m so sorry we had to put you through all this. It won’t be long now; we’re close to bringing down Cato, his network, and the whole, rotten conspiracy.”
“Don’t worry about me; I’ll manage. However, there’s one more thing I’d like to know.”
“What’s that, love?”
“What was the business with the little talking deer?”
Aurelia laughed. “Oh, that. The name Bambi comes from a twentieth-century old Earth children’s story about a fawn. The android Bambi was your guide; an example of Cato’s sick humor, I suppose.”
Ludwig brushed some stray hair from her eyes, and said, “Yes, Aurelia. Our elite seem to enjoy their little jokes.”
Aurelia left Ludwig with the Doctor. Following the examination, an android led Ludwig to a small room. Neat, clean and austere, the room resembled a prisoner’s cell, very different from his suite at the hotel, or the Finn penthouse.
Ludwig studied the Gold Aureus while lying on his cot. Looking at the device on the reverse, he wondered what it signified. Returning the coin to his pocket, he reflected, I’d better play dumb with both sides, until I figure out what the hell is going on.
Before leaving the fortress, Aurelia went to the infirmary, and met with the Chief Physician. “What did you find?” she asked. “Did they use Alucinor?”
“It’s very strange, Colonel. Our tests found no trace of Alucinor, or any other psychotropic drug. We’re still going over the results, but it’s possible they used a new technique.”
Aurelia thanked the Doctor, and then left the safe house, flying her hover-car to Finn’s penthouse. Berenice greeted her in the entrance hall. “We weren’t expecting you so soon, Mistress Aurelia.”
Glaring at the android, Aurelia snapped, “Where’s the Consul? I need to see him immediately.”
Berenice smiled, and replied, “Your father is in his study; I’ll announce you.”
“I’ll announce myself, thank you.” Aurelia shoved Berenice aside, marched to the study, and knocked loudly.
The Consul growled, “Come in.” Working at his computer desk, Finn continued typing on the keyboard; without looking up, he asked, “Why are you here?”
“We need to talk about Ludwig... now.”
The Consul scowled, grumbling, “Yes, Ludwig. You’re supposed to be debriefing him, at the safe house. Why aren’t you there... now?”
Aurelia glared stubbornly, and asked, “Are you going to offer me a chair?”
The Consul pointed to an armchair, facing him, and said, “Sit.”
Aurelia sat, and then responded to Finn’s question. “I began the debriefing this morning; at first I thought Bambi gave Ludwig a large dose of Alucinor. I had our doctors examine him; the tests found no trace of psychotropic drugs, which seems odd. Perhaps they used something new, but it’s still troubling. The ideas and suggestions Cato implanted in Ludwig’s memory may be extremely difficult to erase. Attempting to do so might result in severe brain damage.”
“What ideas and suggestions are you talking about?”
“The Ludovicus legend. He knows just enough to feel a compelling need to know more.”
The Consul got up from his chair, clasped his hands behind his back, and began pacing back and forth. After a moment, he stopped, turned to Aurelia, and said, “Using Ludwig as an agent was a calculated risk; we ought to have anticipated this. However, what’s done is done. Have you any suggestions?”
“I put Dax in charge, at the safe house. We’ll keep Luddy incommunicado for a while. In the meantime, I’ll consult the doctors about deprogramming and conservative step-down treatments that are relatively safe.”
Finn sat in his chair, pondered a moment, and then replied, “I agree.” He watched Aurelia leave; when she reached the door, he added, “Ludwig’s important to our plans, Aurelia, but he’s not indispensable. If you believe he’s inclining toward Cato, I expect you’ll know what to do.”
Aurelia turned to the Consul, answering, “Yes, father, I’ll take care of it.”
Shortly after Aurelia left, Finn called Colonel Zack on a secure line. The Colonel answered; Finn greeted him tersely. “Zack, we have a problem.”
* * *
“Hi Luddy: how’re they treating you?”
“They’re treating me fine, Dax. Just like a high value P.O.W.”
Dax laughed at Ludwig’s gallows humor. He had come to see Ludwig in his room, and his concern for his comrade appeared genuine. Sitting with Ludwig at a table, Dax bantered, attempting to lift his friend’s spirits. “Come on, Luddy, it’s not all that bad, is it? You’re here for your own good, you know. We’re protecting you from Cato and his agents. I heard about your Bambi-induced hallucinogenic trip; sorry, sport.”
“Thanks, Dax. I’ve already seen the doctors, and they’ve run a number of tests. My brain’s functioning normally, but I’m stuck with some dangerous visions; they won’t go away.”
“Dangerous visions, huh? Dr. Dax has a prescription for such things: your favorite thirty-year old scotch.”
Ludwig laughed. “Are you suggesting an excursion to the local bar?”
Shaking his head, Dax replied, “I’ll take your sense of humor as a sign of a healthy recovery. No, sport, I’m afraid we can’t go out on the town, just yet. However, your favorite beverage awaits you at Chez Dax, which is to say, my humble office. On the way there, I’ll give you a quick guided tour of this magnificent structure.”
As soon as she entered her hover-car, Aurelia called Dax, on her secure transmitter. “Hi Dax, it’s Aurelia; the bear’s going over the mountain.”
Dax hesitated a moment, and then responded to the pre-arranged code, “To see what he could see?”
“Right: I’ll be back in less than an hour. Keep an eye on Luddy.” Aurelia drove the hover-car to I.S.P. headquarters, to meet with Major Slim. She headed down Republic Boulevard, in heavy late afternoon traffic, reaching headquarters at 5:30 p.m. She passed through standard security showing her I.D., although the guards, who were used to seeing her in uniform, did a double take at her sun dress, high-heeled, open-toed shoes and broad-brimmed hat. Entering the top security area, she passed through voice and eye scan, and then took an elevator down three levels to Major Slim’s office.
Aurelia knocked, and entered; Slim rose from his chair, greeting her with an air of mild bemusement. “You’re looking lovely this evening, Colonel Finn. What can I do for you?”
Aurelia closed the door, and ran to Slim’s desk. “Major, I’m afraid I don’t have much time. Luddy’s in danger.”
Slim’s bewildered grin changed to a look of concern. “What’s the problem?”
“Cato’s network tried to turn Luddy. They fed him information while he was hallucinating. At first, I thought they used Alucinor, but now I’m not sure what they did.”
Slim shook his head, and said, “Messing with someone’s brain is bad news, Colonel.”
“That’s right, Major. Luddy may never get over the suggestions they planted in his head. That means Luddy can’t be trusted, and we both know how my father deals with people he doesn’t trust.”
“I’m with you, Colonel. What do you want me to do?”
“Luddy and I are going to defect; I want you to do everything you can to throw my father’s agents off our trail.”
“That’s a tall order, Colonel, and very risky. However, I owe Luddy big-time, so I’ll do it. But I would like to ask you something, if I may?”
“What do you want to know?”
“You’re betraying your father, defecting to Cato and risking everything for Ludwig. Can you tell me why?”
“I love Luddy, and I’ve seen enough of my father’s methods and know enough about his plans to turn against him. At best, Cato gives us some hope for a better Republic; at worst, he’s the lesser of two evils.”
Slim stared at her with a mixture of admiration and disbelief. After a moment, he declared, “I’ll do my best to help you.”
* * *
“How long will it take you to get to the safe house?” Consul Finn’s face and tone of voice projected urgency, demanding immediate attention.
“About two hours, if I leave immediately, Consul,” Zack replied.
“Alright, Zack, I’m putting you in command at the fortress. Contact Dax and give him orders; he’s to keep Ludwig in maximum-security lockdown, on my authority. If Aurelia tries anything suspicious, he’s to hold her, too. Got that?”
“Yes, Excellency, I’m on my way.”
Consul Finn put down the videophone, stared at a picture of his daughter on his desk, and muttered, “Don’t betray me, Aurelia. No one defies me and gets away with it, not even you.”
Copyright © 2007 by Gary Inbinder