by Gary Inbinder
Table of Contents|
Chapter 16, part 1; part 2
appeared in issue 245.
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.
Seated at the main hall table, Aurelia, Dax, his uncle, and Slim, who had already healed, waited anxiously for Ludwig. Upon seeing Ludwig materialize, Aurelia ran to him, stopping short as she noticed his dazed eyes and blood-spattered weapon and clothes. Aurelia asked, “Did you kill him, Luddy?”
Glancing down at his bloodstained hands, sword, and robe, he answered, “I killed; but not him.”
Aurelia approached cautiously, whispering, “Let me help you get cleaned up and then we can talk.”
Rudely pushing her away, Ludwig muttered, “The androids can help me.” Ludwig called for servants to prepare his bath, and then left the room without another word.
Returning to the table, Aurelia sat, and poured herself a glass of brandy. After taking a drink, she commented, “I’m worried. I’ve never seen Luddy quite like this.”
Nodding in agreement, Dax replied, “You’re right, Aurelia. Luddy’s anything but squeamish, although I recall him being a bit moody and depressed after his parents’ death, which, of course is natural.”
Aurelia said, “Yes, it is natural.” Taking another sip of her drink, she added, “I’ll wait until later, and then try to talk to him alone.”
About an hour after Ludwig’s arrival at the lodge, Aurelia knocked on the bathroom door, and then entered. Addressing the android servants, she said, “You may leave now.”
The two androids turned to Ludwig and waited until he nodded, in agreement. The servants bowed and then left the room, closing the door behind them.
Kneeling on the damp tiles edging the bath, Aurelia said, “Please, Luddy, tell me what happened.”
For a moment, Ludwig remained silent. Then, without looking up at Aurelia, he asked, “Do you know the meaning of the Latin expression Oculus auferre spectanti?”
After taking a few seconds to recall what little of the ancient language she learned in school, she replied, “I believe it means to take something away from someone while they’re looking.”
“Yes,” Ludwig observed, “that’s a fairly literal translation. The connotation is to use tricks or illusions to cheat the gullible.” Pausing for a moment, he added, “Why do I know that, Aurelia? I’m a soldier, not a scholar.”
“Perhaps it’s the power of the Aureus?”
“Yes,” he replied, “the miraculous Aureus. It’s changed me, Aurelia.” For the first time since he returned from Finn’s garden, Ludwig looked Aurelia directly in the eye. Frowning, he seemed on the verge of tears. “I wish the truth were like my sword, so I could cut through lies as though they were flesh and bone.” Looking away, he added, “I killed them, Aurelia... Berenice, and our unborn child.”
Stunned by the revelation, Aurelia said nothing. Eventually, to break the silence, she remarked, “I’m sorry, Luddy, truly I am.”
Smiling bitterly, Ludwig turned to her, and said, “Don’t lie to me, Aurelia. I know what you’re thinking. It’s better this way: they were an obstacle, and a threat to our children’s peaceful succession.”
Placing her hand on his shoulder, Aurelia answered, “That’s not true, Luddy; I swear it.”
Taking her hand in his, Ludwig said, “I’ll admit, their death was in my thoughts. An Emperor must think that way... an Empress, too. We are what we are, after all.” Putting her hand down on the edge of the bath, he added, “I’m alright; please go, now. I’ll soon join you and the others in the main hall.”
Aurelia got up and turned to leave the room. Before exiting, she glanced back at Ludwig, and said, “I’m so glad you came back to me. For a moment, I thought you were dead.” Then she walked out the door, returning to the hall to have another drink with their companions.
Shortly after his meeting with Aurelia, Ludwig, cleansed of all trace of blood, and dressed in clean, casual clothes joined the group in the main hall. Slim was the first to greet him.
Slim got up, walked to his friend, held out his hand, and said, “Luddy, that’s the second time you saved my life. I’ll return the favor one of these days.”
Smiling, and firmly grasping Slim’s hand, Ludwig replied, “I made a timely appearance, but I still don’t know what happened to Zack. Do I owe you for getting rid of Finn’s right-hand man?”
Slim shook his head, and answered, “No, that would be our friend Dax. If it wasn’t for him, I’d be singing with the choir in cyborg heaven.”
“Roasting in the flames of cyborg hell, more likely,” Dax quipped.
Grinning, Slim turned toward his friend, and remarked, “You have big ears, Lieutenant, but I can still cut them down to size.”
Dax laughed, “If you do, I suppose I’ll have to go to Robo-Mart and buy a new pair. I hear they’re on sale this week.” After putting up his hands in mock defense to a menacing gesture from Slim, Dax turned to Ludwig: “Come join us, Luddy. I want to introduce you to my uncle.”
Arm in arm, Ludwig and Slim walked over to the rest of the group, who were sitting on chairs and couches near the fireplace, enjoying after-dinner brandy and cigars. Dax introduced his uncle to Ludwig.
The Colonel was a bald, fair man of medium height and build, with patrician manners, and the soft look of an officer who had made his rank through social connections and politics rather than leadership in combat. Rising from his chair, and extending his hand, he said, “I’m honored to meet you, my lord, and most grateful. Had you not rescued me, I’m sure that by now, I’d either be dead or on my way to a penal colony.”
Ludwig smiled and shook the Colonel’s hand. “I’m pleased to have you with us, Colonel Dax, and look forward to a long and mutually beneficial association.”
Gratified by Ludwig’s magnanimous greeting, the Colonel replied, “There’s no one I’d more gladly serve, my lord.”
After taking their seats, Dax looked at Ludwig, and made a comment concerning their escape from the fortress. “It was tricky getting back up the air-shaft and down the hill; we had to waste a couple of ’droids, while half-carrying, half-dragging old rusty bolts most of the way.”
Slim glowered, muttering, “Don’t push it, Lieutenant.”
Ludwig interjected, good-naturedly, “That’s right, Dax. You saved a valued comrade, and eliminated a dangerous enemy, so we’ve cut you some slack. But it’s time to stop the wisecracks, and get back to serious business.”
Looking a bit sheepish, Dax said, “Yes, sir,” and returned to his drink.
Ludwig lit a cigar, and sampled some brandy, commenting upon the excellence of both. Then, after a moment of quiet reflection, he addressed the group. “It’s less than three weeks to Finn’s pre-election games; I plan to overthrow Consul Finn at that time, and our future depends upon our success or failure that day.”
Directing a question to Colonel Dax, Ludwig asked, “Does Finn plan to feature a masked challenge?”
“Absolutely, my lord,” the Colonel replied. “The challenge is the highlight of the games, always popular with the crowd. Consul Finn couldn’t do without it.”
Nodding his head in agreement, Ludwig continued, “I assume, Colonel that Finn plans to fight his combat ’droid champions, against the traditional masked pair of male and female challengers?”
“Right again, sir,” the Colonel replied. “Consul Finn wouldn’t want to upset the audience by depriving them of their favorite spectacle.”
“Very well, you must see to it that Aurelia and I are substituted for the scheduled pair.”
The group, except for Aurelia, registered various levels of surprise in reaction to Ludwig’s comment. Colonel Dax responded, “That’s very risky, my lord. When it comes to the games, I think of myself as an aficionado. In the past century, only one pair of challengers survived.”
Smiling, Ludwig replied, “The difficulty and popularity of the challenge fit with my plans. I can think of no better or more honorable way for Aurelia and me to prove our worthiness to rule than to be proclaimed champions of the Republic before a crowd of one hundred thousand cheering patricians, plebeians and androids, not to mention an inter-galactic broadcast audience of billions.”
“That would be great public relations, Luddy,” Dax said, “provided, of course, that you and Aurelia win.”
“Luddy and I will stake our lives on victory,” Aurelia interjected. “Our followers must have faith, but you must also be prepared to die if we fail.”
Without hesitation, Slim asserted, “I’m with you.”
Dax chimed in, “Me too.”
The Colonel exhaled some cigar smoke, and nervously swirled the brandy in his snifter. Eventually, he turned to Ludwig, and declared, “I’ve witnessed your tremendous power, my lord, and I owe you my life. I’m fully committed to your service, and I’ll do whatever I can to help ensure your success.”
Ludwig looked around the table, nodded, and said, “Very well, then. However, Aurelia and I will win the challenge using our own fighting skills. The power of the Aureus must be saved for my final confrontation with Consul Finn.” Hearing no dissent, Ludwig turned to the Colonel. “I’ll need you to pull strings to get Aurelia and me substituted for the scheduled pair without Finn’s knowledge. Can you do that?”
“Of course, sir,” the Colonel replied, “the Master of Ceremonies is a Dax.”
Ludwig laughed, and then remarked, “Is there anyone with clout, in our galaxy who isn’t one?” Ludwig’s comment initiated a burst of convivial laughter, followed by a round of drinks.
After a while, Ludwig continued, “I expect Consul Finn to have a couple of combat ’droids in his box, replicating Aurelia and me.” Turning to Slim, he asked, “Do you think you, Dax and Claudia can handle them?”
“No problem, sir,” Slim replied. “I’ll admit I was a bit slow with Zack, but since your treatment with the Aureus, I feel completely rejuvenated. As for young Dax, I’ll show him a trick or two in the next couple of weeks, not to mention kicking his butt into shape.”
Punching his comrade in the shoulder, Dax remarked, “Is that the way for a half-bot to talk about the gentleman who saved his life?”
Turning to Dax, with a sinister smile, Slim answered, “We could start your training right now, Lieutenant.”
Ignoring the banter, Ludwig said, “I’m relying on you all to accomplish your assigned goals. In the meantime, I have a secret mission of my own. I’ll be leaving soon, and I won’t be able to tell any of you where I’m going.” Looking at Aurelia, he added, “I’m afraid that includes you, too.”
Aurelia smiled and silently nodded her assent.
Continuing, Ludwig said, “I’ll return, here, the week of the games. In the meantime, contact Claudia, and rely on Cato’s androids for assistance. If you need to change locations, don’t hesitate; I’ll find you wherever you are.” Placing his arm on Aurelia’s shoulder, Ludwig turned to her, and added, “You’re in charge while I’m gone, Colonel.”
Aurelia looked into Ludwig’s eyes, and replied, “Don’t worry, Luddy, we won’t let you down.”
Ludwig kissed Aurelia, gently. Holding hands, they got up from the table. Lifting his brandy snifter, Ludwig proposed a toast, “To the New Imperium.”
The others stood at attention, raised their glasses, and cried out, as with one voice, “To the New Imperium.”
* * *
Wrapped in a white sheet, Berenice’s body lay on a cold, steel table at Plotinus Industries. Beside her rested a small, metal box containing the embryonic remains of her child. Skilled technicians repaired Ludwig’s sword-gash that had destroyed both mother and fetus, but they did not restore their lives.
Consul Finn held Berenice’s hand, blinking away his tears as he gazed at her body in the dim light of the cryogenics laboratory antechamber. Bending over the corpse, he whispered, “Ludwig was a fool not to have loved you, my perfect daughter. Rest now, in a deep, dreamless sleep, you and my grandchild. Some day, you’ll avenge us.
“There’s a part of the legend, Ludwig doesn’t know. If Ludwig and Aurelia are crowned, their first-born son, before his twentieth birthday, will awaken you and fall in love. I may not live to see that, but just thinking of the possibility eases the pain of my loss.”
Consul Finn pressed a button on a console near the table; there was a low, whining sound and a metallic rumble, as a door at the far side of the antechamber opened, and the table rolled forward on rails, disappearing into the darkness of a cryogenic vault.
Watching and listening as the door sealed the vault with a gaseous hiss, Finn declared, “A generation is too long to wait for revenge.” Believing Ludwig and Aurelia were planning a coup at the upcoming games, the Consul added, “Let them come, and give me the pleasure of killing them with my own hands.”
Copyright © 2007 by Gary Inbinder