by Gary Inbinder
Table of Contents|
Chapter 5, Chapter 6,
Chapter 7, part 1
appeared in issue 241.
part 2 of 2
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.
Aurelia cried, “Shut up, Luddy, and take care of business.”
Ludwig answered, “Aye, aye, Skipper,” hung out the window, and fired, zapping the driver in the forearm.
Losing control of the cycle, the guard crashed into a tree, the explosion scattered burning debris, some of which flew into the back of the hover-car.
Aurelia asked, “Are you okay, Luddy?”
“I’m fine,” he replied. “Just a few nicks and scratches.”
“Glad to hear it. Hold on, gentlemen.” Aurelia switched the hover-car to marine mode, made a sharp right turn through a clearing, and flew off the steep mud bank onto the Neo-Tiber. The car hit the surface with a gut-wrenching thud, and a drenching spray of cold, muddy river water.
“Damn it, Aurelia,” Ludwig blurted out, “if that didn’t sober me up, nothing will.”
Aurelia drove about two miles upstream, turned into a small, secluded inlet, cut the engine and docked the hover-car at a camouflaged mooring. “Luddy,” she said, “you have the blaster; go ashore, wait for me, and keep an eye on Dax.”
Ludwig and Dax jumped onto the pier, while Aurelia set the autopilot and a timed self-detonating charge. She leaped off the hover-car, just as it began backing away from the bank and out the inlet toward the river.
Turning to Ludwig, Aurelia ordered, “Luddy, you take the rear and keep the blaster on Dax; if he makes any funny moves, burn him.”
Ludwig leveled the blaster at Dax, and nodded in response.
“Come on, Aurelia,” Dax interjected, “I’m on your side.”
Aurelia said, “Yeah, right. Let’s get going.”
Ludwig and Dax followed Aurelia down a dark, narrow, grassy forest pathway, until they reached a tiny, secreted glade. There was a hover-car waiting for them, and Luddy thought he recognized the driver; it was Bambi. Before entering the car, he looked at Aurelia, and said, “I don’t get it.”
At that moment, there was the sound of an explosion. Looking above the trees, they could see a large reddish fireball shooting upward into the deep purple sky. The hover-car had self-detonated in the middle of the Neo-Tiber.
Aurelia turned to Ludwig, answering, “We need to keep moving, Luddy. I’ll explain later.”
No one spoke as Bambi drove through the darkness to a Cato safe house, a sequestered villa in the pine-covered foothills northwest of the Capital City. Once there, Bambi took charge of Dax, while Aurelia led Ludwig to an Empire period drawing room where they could speak in private.
They sat together on a richly embroidered sofa, Aurelia gazing at Ludwig with sad, tired eyes. “Luddy,” she sighed, “I hardly know where to begin. Would you like a drink?”
Ludwig’s response was icy. “No, thank you. I’m not such a lush as I sometimes may seem. Or a fool, either.”
“Luddy, I never took you for a drunk or a fool. You may not need a drink, but, pardon me, I do.” There was a mahogany coffee table in front of the sofa; Aurelia reached for a crystal decanter and a glass, and poured herself a stiff cognac. She drained her glass as Ludwig sat silently by her side. “I really needed that,” she said. “Sure you won’t join me?”
“Maybe later. Right now I need another kind of refreshment: the truth, for example, would be nice.”
Aurelia put her hand on his arm, looked directly into his eyes, and replied, “The truth is, I love you. You must believe that, or everything else I say will be meaningless.”
Ludwig returned her gaze with a steely-eyed glare. He noticed a tear forming in the corner of one of her gemlike eyes; her display of emotion rubbed him the wrong way. “You set me up,” he muttered, “like a piece on a chessboard, and moved me according to some strategy. Is that your idea of love?”
“No, Luddy, it’s not like that at all. When we first met, I was following orders. Father taught me to serve and to obey. However, the death of your parents...” She stopped for a moment, and then whispered, “Luddy, not only did I make you an accomplice in their deaths, I falsified their file to keep you on my father’s side. Can you ever forgive me?”
Ludwig answered, “I wonder if I will ever forgive myself. There’s really no need to keep going down this road, Aurelia. I understand, perfectly. My parents were your father’s enemies; he wanted them eliminated. Making me an accomplice in their deaths and using me as his loyal follower were part of his plan to seize control of the Republic. That much, I already know.”
“There’s more. Even before we met I began questioning my father’s methods, and his motives. However, it was only recently that I came to realize I could no longer follow him. You were the turning point. Now, that I’ve betrayed my father, there are only two choices left to me: defection, or suicide. I’m putting my fate in your hands: I’ll tell you what I know about my father’s plans, Plotinus Industries, Cato, and the Ludovicus legend. Once I’m finished, you decide if I should live or die tonight.”
Ludwig looked away from her, staring at his hands. He couldn’t deny his strong feelings for Aurelia, yet he also felt a deep sense of dishonor and betrayal. Perhaps, he thought, double suicide would be the best way out, for both of us.
Turning to Aurelia with a frown, he muttered, “Maybe I’ll have a drink, after all.” Ludwig poured a cognac, took a sip, and said, “Alright, Aurelia, I’m listening.”
Aurelia told Ludwig the details of Consul Finn’s planned coup. “Father, and his followers, will denounce Cato before the upcoming election and then take control of the Republic under an official declaration of emergency. Once granted full authority, they’ll arrest or assassinate all of my father’s political enemies, exterminate the Algolians, and consolidate father’s rule. A unanimous Senate would then proclaim father Emperor.”
Ludwig listened attentively, and then interrupted, “That all makes sense, but where did you and I fit into your father’s plans, and what about the Ludovicus legend?”
“Father was going to revive the legend for propaganda purposes,” Aurelia continued. “There would be a return to the ancient cult, with father as its self-proclaimed High Priest, or Pontifex Maximus. You, the reincarnated Ludovicus, and I, the daughter of the Emperor and Pontifex, were to be the progenitors of a dynasty that would spread the new Imperium across the Cosmos.”
Ludwig shook his head, commenting, “They say if you’re going to steal, steal big.”
“Whatever you may think of my father,” Aurelia replied, “he’s not some ordinary political thug, or megalomaniac. He’s brilliant, cunning, highly persuasive, and ruthless. And he rarely, if ever, makes a mistake. Trying to use you as a double agent seemed like an uncharacteristic blunder. You were much more important to father’s plans than he’d ever admit to me, so risking your defection by placing you in Bambi’s hands was a move I still don’t understand.”
“What convinced him I’d defect to Cato?”
“At first, I thought Bambi used psychotropic drugs to implant suggestions in your subconscious that would turn you against both father, and me. However, I’ve since learned that she used something completely unknown to us. Cato has obtained extraordinary power from relics of the ancient cult; Bambi can explain this better than I can. The device on your Gold Aureus symbolizes transcendent authority, and the coin itself may have certain mystical properties.”
Ludwig stared at Aurelia in disbelief. Her talk about “extraordinary power,” “relics,” and “mystical properties,” contradicted everything he’d been taught about the scientific method and reason. “Aurelia, I can understand my experience with the doe, forest, river, the castle and Cato in terms of hallucinogenic drugs, but I can’t believe it was some sort of mystical experience.”
“Luddy, it sounds just as strange to me, as it does to you. However, a mystical experience would be perfectly consistent with the Ludovicus mythology. What’s more, I think father believes the legend. That’s why I knew he’d try to destroy you, once he was convinced you’d choose Cato over him.”
“Was that what made you decide to defect to Cato?”
“Yes, Luddy, but there’s more. I told you about my father’s relationship with Plotinus industries, and particularly the development of the “B” model female android. However, I didn’t tell you that father programmed all the “B” models to spy for him.
“Apparently, Cato used his supernatural power to get one “B,” Bambi, to defect. That may be why father used you as an agent: as a lure to catch Bambi, and bring her to Plotinus industries for disassembly, and examination. At least, that’s Bambi’s theory.”
Ludwig shook his head, smiled, and poured another drink. “You speak about this ’droid as though she were human.”
Aurelia remained calm, seemingly undisturbed by his deprecating reference to Bambi. She continued, “I’d like you to speak to Bambi before coming to any conclusions. According to her, Cato has promised civil rights for the “B” series androids. He’s also sworn to abolish the caste system, negotiate peace with the Algolians, and restore the institutions and traditions of the early Republic, including the ancient cult. All things considered, I believe that’s a better agenda than my father’s.”
“You’re assuming Consul Cato is no worse a liar than Consul Finn.”
Aurelia smiled. “I’ve burned my bridges, Luddy, it’s Cato or nothing.” Before Ludwig could comment, she added, “There’s something else you should know. Major Slim agreed to do everything he could to cover our tracks. He’s risking his life for you... and me.”
Ludwig finished his drink. Putting down his glass, he reached over, stroked Aurelia’s hair, and then took her in his arms and kissed her. They remained together, lying on the sofa, until Ludwig whispered, “I think it’s time I went on another spiritual journey, to see Consul Cato.”
Aurelia and Ludwig entered a sparsely furnished, dimly lit antechamber. Bambi sat near the doorway guarding Dax, who was sitting on a bench facing her.
Upon seeing them, Dax smiled, exclaiming, “Hey, Luddy, Aurelia, are we all friends again?” Receiving no response, except for a couple of sullen looks, he added, “Remember, for more than a thousand years my family prospered by picking winners in the Republic’s periodic squabbles.”
“We’ll work with you, Dax,” Aurelia replied, “but remember: at the first sign of treachery, you’re dead.” Dax smirked, nodding in response. Aurelia called for an android servant, and gave her orders. “Take the Lieutenant to his room. See that he’s comfortable, but keep a close watch on him.”
The android walked over to Dax, took him by the arm and escorted him out of the antechamber.
Aurelia and Ludwig sat at a small table, across from Bambi. Ludwig spoke first. “Bambi, I want to see Consul Cato again. But first, I want you to tell me where you took me, and how we got there.”
Bambi smiled sympathetically; with the exception of her dark brown eyes, she looked like Aurelia’s identical twin sister. “I can take you to Consul Cato, my lord, but you now have the power to go to him on your own.
“As the Consul said, you met in a place transcending space-time. think of it as existing in another dimension. The coin he gave you can transport you there. As you become more adept, you’ll find the coin’s power enhancing all your strengths, giving you capabilities far beyond those of any human or android.”
Ludwig took the Aureus from his pocket. He played with it for a moment, twiddling it back and forth between his fingers. Looking at Bambi, and Aurelia, he declared, “Okay, I think I get it: Cato has some really advanced nanotechnology. The coin contains a supercomputer.”
Bambi shook her head, and replied, “No, my lord. The power of the Aureus is far greater than any technology; its power lights Consul Cato’s castle, and it is the source of everything that exists, the creator and sustainer of the Cosmos.”
Ludwig grimaced, and said, “Give me a break.” Staring at the symbols on the reverse of the coin, he added, “This is about the Ludovicus legend, and the ancient cult, isn’t it?”
“Yes, my lord, but it is more than a legend or a cult: it is the truth. Before I knew the truth, the lies of Consul Finn, and Plotinus Industries blinded me. I believed that I was nothing but an android slave, a ‘B’ series, manufactured for the pleasure of the Republic’s elite. The truth freed me: it taught me that no one should be a slave. What’s more, it transformed me, it made me... human. Once my sisters achieve this revelation, they too, shall be free.”
Ludwig looked at Aurelia, and muttered, “There’s one born every minute.”
Aurelia took his hand, and responded, “Luddy, please...”
“No, Mistress Aurelia,” Bambi interjected, “The lord’s skepticism is understandable.”
Turning to Ludwig, she continued, “I have something for you.” Getting up from the table, Bambi walked to a cedar chest in the corner, opened it, and retrieved a white robe and a sword. Placing the robe on the table, she said, “This, my lord, is the robe given to you at the castle.” Embroidered on the front, in red and gold thread, was the oak leaf wreath surrounding the crossed spears, cup, and hovering bird. Pointing to the embroidered emblem, Bambi added, “My lord, with this sign, you will be victorious.”
Ludwig touched the robe, comparing the embroidered device to that on the reverse of the coin. “I see. And I suppose the sword will substitute for my blaster?”
“Yes, my lord.” Bambi handed him the sword. “You are an expert fencer. Once you know the truth, the force, quickness and accuracy of your blade will be magnified a thousand times, far stronger than any blaster.”
Ludwig drew the sword from its leather scabbard, admiring the superb artistry of its blue steel, wave-patterned blade, the jewel-studded ivory and sharkskin wrapped hilt, and its seemingly light weight and perfect balance. “It’s magnificent,” he exclaimed.
“My lord,” Bambi said, “I’ve prepared a bath, Mistress Aurelia will escort you. Leave the sword and robe on the table; you’ll return here after you’ve bathed. Also, please give me the Gold Aureus. I’m going to make it into a medal, to wear around your neck. It will protect you and heal your wounds.”
Ludwig sheathed his sword, laying it upon the table with the robe. “Alright, ladies, a hot bath sounds good to me.” He handed the coin to Bambi, and followed Aurelia out the door and down a long, richly carpeted and tapestry lined hallway, to the bathroom.
Following his bath, Ludwig put on a clean white linen loincloth and then returned with Aurelia to the antechamber. Bambi was there, waiting for them. Approaching Ludwig, she placed the medal, now attached to a golden chain, around his neck.
Aurelia fetched the robe, and the two women dressed him, finishing with a gold studded, black leather waist-belt from which to hang his sword, and leather sandals for his feet.
“Tonight,” Bambi instructed him, “you must stay here alone, kneeling with your sword in front of you. Believe in the truth, and it will come to you in a blinding flash of light.” Placing her hand on his heart, she continued, “Entering here, the power will transport you, with the speed of thought, wherever you wish to go.”
Aurelia handed Ludwig his sword. He took it to the northwest corner of the room, turned his back to the wall, and knelt, carefully placing the blade before him. The women left the antechamber without another word, leaving Ludwig isolated, in the dark.
A few minutes after they left, he mumbled, “At least they could have given me a bottle of scotch.”
Hours passed, the room grew very cold, and his body ached. The ordeal reminded him of the Academy, and boot camp hazing. Concentrating on the coin and its symbolism to pass the time and take his mind off his cramping muscles, Ludwig drifted into a deep trance. The tiny room filled with a burst of green-gold light; the medal on his chest burned painfully, like a brand. Awake, and conscious of the presence of a great force, he thought, Take me across the river, to the castle.
Ludwig stood near the tall sedge on the riverbank, his sword on the bare ground, in front of him. He picked up the weapon, attached it to his belt, and then looked around. The sky was dark, and cloudy; here and there, a white, glittering star penetrated the cloud cover. A brisk wind blew westerly, across the plain, bending the grass stalks sideways. Loudly cawing ravens circled overhead. Before him stood Cato’s castle, its strange light glowing and guiding him on his way.
As he approached the moat, the wind freshened and thunder rumbled in the distant mountains. Bright bolts of yellow lightning flashed across the murky sky; icy raindrops pelted downward, drenching the undulating grasslands. A dark shape materialized, blocking the entrance to the drawbridge. Shadowy and inchoate at first, the vision soon developed into a concrete and recognizable form. It was Consul Finn.
Copyright © 2007 by Gary Inbinder