by Gary Inbinder
Table of Contents|
Chapter 18, part 2
appear in this issue.
part 1 of 2
Ludwig awoke before dawn; the bedroom was dark, and almost silent, except for Aurelia’s soft, regular breathing. Warm and fragrant, she lay on her right side in bed, head resting on a pillow, with her back to Ludwig. He came very close to her, gently nuzzling the dark short hairs budding on the nape of her neck.
Mumbling in her sleep, Aurelia rolled over toward him, her bare hips brushing against his thighs as she shifted position. Turning onto her stomach with her face almost touching his, Aurelia slipped back into a deep, undisturbed sleep.
Ludwig pulled up the silk sheets to cover Aurelia’s nude body, and then got out of bed. He dressed in the dark, making as little noise as possible, and then opened a chest. He took out his robe, sword and belt; the garment and articles were self-purifying, and as pristine as the first day he wore them.
Wearing an overcoat, fur hat and hiking boots, he tiptoed out of the bedroom with barely a sound, down the carpeted corridor to the main hall entrance, and out into the brisk, pre-dawn mountain air.
His boots crunching in the glittering white snow, Ludwig walked to the edge of the ski slope where he viewed the rising sun as it glimmered over the purple-shadowed peaks on the horizon. As he watched the sun ascending, Ludwig recalled how some of his Republican Guard comrades participated in the secret, old earth cult of Sol Invictus, going so far as to sacrifice young bulls to their god. It seemed foolish, to Ludwig, to follow such an ancient creed in an age of inter-galactic travel, telekinesis, human-like androids, and virtual reality so real as to be indistinguishable from reality itself.
Cato’s re-established Church of the Creator will replace the outworn creeds of Jupiter, Sol Invictus and the Great Mother, but I won’t permit coercion of conscience, or forced conversion. With these thoughts in his mind, and the dawn’s rays gleaming on his face, Ludwig transported to the entrance of Cato’s castle.
Ludwig entered the main hall, and one of Cato’s knights greeted him. “Welcome, my lord,” the knight said, “my master has been waiting for you.”
The knight escorted Ludwig to the Consul’s chamber, where the two leaders shook hands, embraced, and then sat at the marble-topped table, while a pair of knights served refreshments.
Ludwig sipped some wine from a gem-encrusted silver goblet, commenting, “Excellent vintage, Consul.”
“Thank you, my lord,” Cato replied. “Once your New Imperium is established, you must permit me to take you and your Empress on a tour of my vineyards.”
“That would be very kind of you, Consul; Aurelia and I will look forward to it.” After finishing his glass, and gesturing to a knight for a re-fill, Ludwig continued, “Since you seem to know most of my plans before I do, let’s get down to business and discuss your role at the up-coming games.”
Troubled by Ludwig’s comment about his plans, Cato observed, “I’ll admit my androids keep me informed. However, I hope you don’t feel as though you’ve been spied upon?”
Smiling, Ludwig replied, “Not at all, Consul. Claudia and your other ’droids owe you their allegiance. Besides, we’re all in this together, and there’s nothing relating to my plans concerning Consul Finn that I would keep from you.”
Relieved, Cato smiled, sipped some wine, and took a ripe green pear from a silver fruit bowl. The Consul cut a slice of pear with a small silver knife, nibbled a bit of the sweet, juicy flesh, and said, “I know you plan a coup at the games, and will have the support of the Republican Guard and the I.S.P. In addition to cheering you on, the Guard and Police will also secure the area, suppressing any resistance from Finn’s followers.
“You and Colonel Finn will appear in the arena as masked challengers displaying your combat skills before an inter-galactic audience prior to denouncing Consul Finn and his android pseudo-Ludwig and Aurelia. As for my part, I suggest that at the appropriate moment I join you and then proclaim you leader of the New Imperium.”
Laughing politely, Ludwig replied, “We both know that is the role you were meant to play in our coup, but I’m sure you also know that Finn won’t go down without a fight.”
“Yes, my lord, I’m afraid that’s true, and you must defeat him in single combat.”
Ludwig drained his goblet and smiled. “I wouldn’t have it any other way, Consul.”
Cato nodded in agreement, and then pointed to the fruit-bowl, saying, “Please try one of the pears or an apple from our orchard. They’re very good, thanks to you. And we have a nice assortment of cheeses ranging from mild to sharp, soft to hard.”
Ludwig chose a bright, red apple and a mild, medium soft pale-yellow cheese, and called to a knight for more wine. Munching on his snack and savoring the cool fruit and spice tang of the semi-sweet wine, Ludwig relaxed for a moment, enjoying the sound of warbling birds in the nearby orchard and the mild breeze blowing across the fertile plain and through the windows of Cato’s chamber.
Eventually, he remarked, “It’s time we discussed our relations with Queen Artemisia and the Algolians. I’d like to know what, if any, promises you have made them.”
Observing Ludwig carefully, as if trying to read his thoughts in his expression, Cato said, “I’ve offered them a truce, followed by negotiations, my lord; nothing more.”
Ludwig put down his goblet and finished eating a slice of apple, and a piece of cheese. “The Queen is my aunt, my mother Aquilia’s younger sister. I’ve decided to travel to Algol 1, meet with her and begin negotiations directly, prior to our coup.”
Cato carefully considered Ludwig’s words, and then replied, “Perhaps that’s wise, my lord. However, it’s a bit risky with our armies still at war.”
“I’m aware of the risks, Consul. What’s more, I plan to travel incognito, on a blockade-runner.”
Cato’s eyes widened with concern. “My lord,” he asked, “wouldn’t it be better to have my network arrange a meeting here in my castle? Or, if you prefer traveling to Algol, why not use the Aureus to transport you there?”
Ludwig responded with resolve, “I have my own reasons for approaching the Queen this way. I’m afraid you’ll just have to trust me on this.”
Smiling, and shaking his head, Cato replied, “Very well, my lord, but could you at least let me know what you intend to offer the Queen?”
“I’m sorry, Consul; I can’t tell you that, either. What I offer the Queen will depend on the circumstances. However, you may rest assured that whatever I propose, it will be in the best interest of both the New Imperium and your Church.”
“I understand, my lord. Could you at least get the Queen to permit our missionaries on the Algolian planets and to respect the rights of converts?”
Ludwig laughed, replying, “Of course, that goes without saying, Consul. To live in peace with our New Imperium, they must also live in peace with our God.”
The Consul gave Ludwig a suite of rooms where Ludwig bathed, and rested for a few hours. After placing his robe, sword and belt in a large mahogany wardrobe, Ludwig called for an android to bring a disguise, including a change of casual clothes suitable for a mid-level Silver office worker.
A skilled cosmetician, the android dyed Ludwig’s hair black, darkened his skin, applied a neatly trimmed artificial Vandyke beard, and gave him a pair of brown contact lenses, with eye-identification. Showing Ludwig the transformation in a full-length, three-way mirror, the android proudly declared, “Your own mother wouldn’t know you, my lord.”
Thinking of Aquilia, the eagle, and Queen Artemisia, Ludwig smiled. “Thank you, Cassius, you’ve done a good job. However, in this instance, I hope both my mother and my aunt recognize me.”
Looking a bit puzzled, Cassius answered, “Whatever you say, my lord.”
After the android left the bedroom, Ludwig armed himself with a mini-blaster, and placed a wallet in his pocket filled with a large sum of Republican currency, courtesy of Cato. The Consul also provided Ludwig with a forged Silver passport and identity card; he would travel under the name of Ralph Corbin, occupation, computer technician, third class.
Ludwig kept the Aureus around his neck, reserving its power for use when necessary. Dressed and equipped for his journey, Ludwig knocked on the Consul’s door, intending to say good-bye before leaving the alternate world.
Cato greeted Ludwig with a surprised smile. “I wouldn’t have known you, my lord. However, you still look impressive for a Silver office worker; you’d stand out in a crowd.”
“I’ll be avoiding crowds for the next week or two, Consul.” Embracing Cato and then warmly shaking his hand, Ludwig continued, “I’ll contact you no less than twenty-four hours prior to the games. I’ll fill you in on the details of my negotiations with the Algolians at that time.”
“Very well, my lord, I look forward to our next meeting.” Gazing intensely into Ludwig’s transformed eyes, the Consul added, “I realize you’ve made up your mind, but could you at least give me a clue as to why you’re taking such a risk when we’re so near to achieving our goal?”
“Yes, Consul; I owe you that much,” Ludwig replied. “There are things in our Republic and on Algol that I must see through a different pair of eyes before I speak to Queen Artemisia. Is that enough, for the time being?”
Smiling, Cato answered, “Yes, that’s sufficient, my lord. Until the next time we meet, the power of the Aureus will guide and protect you. Farewell.”
Ludwig transported, materializing in a quiet, dimly lit street in the Silver and Bronze section of New Ostia, the Capital City’s intergalactic spaceport. Landing on a damp concrete sidewalk near the Twelfth Street Neo-Tiber tunnel entrance, he walked through a light drizzle toward “The Gallant Guardsman,” a veterans’ watering hole about one block up the street.
It was ten p.m. on a Wednesday, no hover cars in sight except for a few parked at the curb. The happy hour crowd had long since left the bar to return to their plebeian residence units.
A pit-bull barked fiercely, startling Ludwig as he walked past a chain-link fenced, trash-strewn and weed-infested empty lot adjacent to the tavern. Stopping a moment, Ludwig turned his head and glared at the snarling animal.
Transfixed by Ludwig’s steely-eyed stare, the dog grew silent, slowly backed a few paces, whimpered and then turned tail and ran for cover behind the wrecked shell of an old mini-hover car.
Smiling, Ludwig turned away from the dog and looked up at the tavern’s garish flashing sign. A flickering red arrow pointed to the entrance, with the greeting, “Come on in.”
Entering the dark, cigarette smoke-filled room, Ludwig noticed only two patrons: a middle-aged, nondescript couple sitting on stools at the far end of the bar, smoking cheap tobacco and drinking beer.
The couple chattered boozily between gulps of beer; occasionally, the man would leer, make an obscene gesture and then whisper into the woman’s ear. She responded with bursts of laughter, followed by a drag of cigarette and more swigs of her beer.
The bartender had her back to the doorway. She dried a few glasses with a towel and then placed them on a shelf. Then she turned around, took a cloth from her belt and began wiping the bar. She looked up for a moment at Ludwig and then continued her work.
Ludwig walked to a stool at the end of the bar furthest from the couple and sat down. The bartender, a hardcore-looking cyborg, stopped wiping, approached him, and muttered, “What’ll it be, mister?”
“Andromedan vodka, tonic and ice, and don’t cheat me on the vodka, Becky.”
Scowling at Ludwig with a look that made combat ’droids yellow-stain their pants, the cyborg growled, “I give a fair pour, mister, and only my friends call me Becky. Do I know you?”
Staring back with eyes that recently awed a pit-bull, Ludwig grinned. “Who saved your ugly butt from a knife-wielding gambler and his three “D” class ’droid thugs in an off-limits Algolian saloon?”
Her scowl changing to a bewildered stare, the cyborg whispered, “Luddy?”
Nodding almost imperceptibly, Ludwig replied, “Get rid of the young lovers, Becky, and then we’ll talk.”
The cyborg shook her head in amazement, turned around, and walked to the other end of the bar. Ludwig watched the brief, somewhat heated conversation. After a minute of discussion, the couple paid their tab, glared in Ludwig’s direction and then walked to the door.
The bartender followed the pair to the entrance, locked the door behind them and then returned to Ludwig. She sat down on the stool next to him. “They’re paying regulars, Luddy, so this better be good. What are you doing in my bar, and what’s with the hair, eyes and make-up? You look like you just came from a Gold-town debutante’s costume ball.”
“I’m working undercover for the I.S.P., and I need a favor from my old pal, Staff Sergeant Bec Rogers.” Noticing the return of Becky’s death-dealing glare, Ludwig added, “Don’t worry, Becky, I’m paying for the favor: let’s say one thousand, cash.”
Softening a bit, the cyborg said, “Let me buy you a drink, and then I’ll hear what you have to say.” The cyborg walked behind the bar, poured two Andromedan vodka and tonics and set one up for Ludwig.
After taking a swig of her drink, Becky continued, “Okay, Luddy, no bull between old comrades. You’re the future Mr. Finn, the Golden boy super-hero of the Republic. Your face and name are all over the intergalactic web, fan e-zines, and Capital City giant screen televideo. The I.S.P. wouldn’t send you on some low-level undercover job, would they?”
Sampling his drink, Ludwig remarked, “You call this piss Andromedan vodka? Never mind, Becky, the price is right. As for my job, that’s none of your business. I know you’re working with blockade-runners, smuggling Algolian happy-dust and selling it on the street in Iron-town. I also know that you kickback a percentage to the I.S.P. for protection. That’s none of my concern.”
Frowning, Rogers said, “Alright, Luddy, life’s tough on a Sergeant’s half-pay pension, and what I make from this joint. I have a family to feed. So tell me what you want.”
“Safe passage to Algol on one of your friend’s freighters. That’s all you need to know. One thousand should help make your life a little less tough, Becky.”
Rogers finished her vodka, grimaced, and said, “You’re right about the vodka, Luddy; it sucks. So does your offer. Let’s say twenty-five hundred.”
Pushing aside his drink, Ludwig smirked. “Don’t break my balls, you semi-human gangster. Think of all the spare parts you could buy with fifteen hundred.”
Becky laughed, and said, “Now that’s real generous, for a guy whose new daddy is worth billions. Two thousand buys you a first-class ticket on the best happy-dust runner in the galaxy.”
Getting up from his stool, Ludwig replied, “It’s been fun, Becky. Don’t let anyone put acid in your oil-can.” Walking to the entrance, Ludwig telekinetically sprang the lock, and opened the door.
“You win, Luddy,” the cyborg called after him, “seventeen-five.”
Ludwig closed the door, turned around, walked back to the bar, and said, “Done.” Sitting on the stool, he opened his wallet, and counted out the bills on the bar.
Copyright © 2007 by Gary Inbinder