by Gary Inbinder
Table of Contents|
Chapter 18, part 1; part 2
appeared in issue 246.
|Chapter 19, part 1 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.
The Albatross took off from the spaceport, at 0600 hours, without a hitch, stopping at Space Station Beta to take on cargo and then continuing on to the hyperspace jump point at 0930 hours NET (New Earth time). Ludwig sat in the cockpit next to the navigator, a cyborg named Andy and behind Cody and his co-pilot, Kingsford, an ex-Space Marine pilot warrant officer.
Cody turned to Ludwig. “So far, so good, Corbin.” Turning to his co-pilot, he ordered, “You’ve got the helm, Mr. Kingsford; call me when we’re ready to jump.”
“Aye-aye, Captain,” Kingsford replied smartly, while concentrating on his control panel.
Cody got up from his seat and walked aft, calling, “Come on, Corbin, we have about a half-hour to jump time; let me buy you a cup of coffee.”
Ludwig followed Cody down the narrow, steel catwalk, through the brightly lit, battle-gray corridor from the bridge to the galley. Ever since boarding the Albatross, Ludwig had marveled at the squared-away appearance and efficiency of the ship and its crew. Sitting with Cody in the galley over a cup of coffee, Ludwig remarked, “I’ve got to hand it to you Commander, you run this operation like a Fleet flagship on duty station.”
Smiling, Cody replied, “What did you expect; a FUBAR Iron-town garbage scow?”
Ludwig had a hard time squaring Cody’s Fleet Commander past with his present circumstances. He decided to risk an inquiry in the guise of an observation. “Not really, but I can’t help wondering how a man like you came to live in the Iron-town projects.”
Frowning, Cody responded, “Hey, ex-guardsman, I don’t pry into your past, don’t you pry into mine.” After taking a sip of coffee, Cody added, “You’ve already become an Iron-town legend. It seems Ursa and his brother Little Bear will live, although the big guy won’t be making baby bears and they both drool a lot and talk goofy. What’s more, the ‘Pimps’ think you’re a ghost, or a demon; they can’t figure out how you got past their snipers... and neither can I.”
Finishing his mug and pouring a second cup, Ludwig commented, “This is damn good coffee.” After taking a long swallow of the spicy, strong black liquid, he replied, “You have your secrets and I have mine, but I’ll trade you some information for a little insight into your background. Things must change in the Republic and I’m one of the people who will make them change.”
Cody smiled, as though Ludwig’s revelation came as no surprise. “Well, Mr. Corbin, you’re either a government agent on a mission or a revolutionary. What the hell, it makes no difference to me. As for things changing, here’s my story, for what it’s worth to you.
“I was a climber. Born Silver on my father’s side, Bronze on my mother’s, I worked my way up from an ordinary rating to Golden Officer status.
“Ten years ago, at the time of the big Algol 1 invasion, I was Executive Officer aboard the Fleet Battle Cruiser Aquitania. Our Captain was a patrician who got his rank through family connections. He was a real yellow and brown stain bastard. We had orders to support the Space Marines and Guardsmen landing in the first wave. We came under heavy fire from Algolian destroyers and shore batteries. Our Captain lost his nerve and ordered us to pull back, leaving two brigades without support. I countermanded that order; the other officers followed me and I put the Captain under arrest until we docked on Alpha 1.
“I was originally charged with mutiny; a capital offense. However, the Court Martial considered the fact that the brigades made a successful landing under our cover fire; they also considered my distinguished combat record and spotless career. Instead of facing a firing squad, I was dishonorably discharged, broken down to Iron status and sentenced to six years penal servitude in the Alpha Brig.
“If you ever get a chance to change things, Mr. Corbin, change this: do away with the military patronage and caste system. Promote based on merit alone and not upon the accident of someone’s birth and the clout of their social connections.”
Ludwig thought briefly about his own changed circumstances and the favors he owed to those who helped him. He wanted to help down on their luck warriors like Becky, Cody and his crew, if he could. “I’ll do what I can, Cody,” he replied. “But I want you to promise something in return. Get out of this dirty business and take good care of the girl.”
Cody replied with an incredulous grimace, finishing his coffee without further comment.
“There’s something else, Cody,” Ludwig added. “I was an eighteen-year-old Guardsman in the first brigade landing on Algol 1. Thanks, Commander.”
At that moment, there was a crackling call on the squawk box: “Five minutes to jump, sir.”
After getting up from the galley table, Cody washed his mug in the small, stainless steel sink and stowed it in a cupboard. “Time to go forward, Mr. Corbin.”
Ludwig cleaned his mug, put it away and followed Cody back to the bridge.
Back at his control panel, Cody turned to his navigator and asked, “Are your coordinates set and prepared for jump, Andy?”
“Aye, sir: T minus sixty seconds and counting.”
Addressing his co-pilot, the Commander ordered, “Engage hyper-drive on the navigator’s count.”
As Andy began his verbal countdown, Ludwig wondered whether he’d have enough time to save himself with the Aureus, if the hyper-jump failed. He’d soon find out.
“Five... four... three... two... one... engage.”
The bridge shook as the hyper-drive kicked in with a rumble and then roared like a rocket on lift-off. Ludwig squinted, as a bright rainbow spectrum of lights flashed through the forward windscreen, flickering and dancing around the darkened cabin like multi-colored fireflies on a warm, June night. He grasped the arms of his flight seat, as it vibrated like a massager-bed in a cheap, spaceport hotel.
Suddenly, after a few minutes of resounding din, shuddering and spectacular light show, all was still and silent. Before them, loomed Algol 1: a large, radiant, blue and white sphere suspended in the black vacuum of space.
The navigator reported, “Jump successfully completed, sir. We’re on time for docking at our rendezvous point at 0100 hours NET.”
“Very well, “Cody replied. “Mr. Kingsford, begin approach to Algol 1, port C4-241 Delta, ETA 0100 NET.” Turning to Ludwig, he added, “Well, Corbin, sorry we couldn’t make that more entertaining for you.”
Just as Ludwig was about to reply, the bridge filled with blinding white light and the ship shook as though it had been struck by a meteor shower.
“What the hell was that?” the Commander shouted.
“Two Republican destroyers, sir, coming on fast, at 8 o’clock low and 12 o’clock high.”
“Evasive action... evasive action; get us the hell out of here.”
The Albatross accelerated and made a sharp one hundred and eighty degree turn to starboard. Shock waves from plasma cannon bursts battered the hull, triggering alarms as electrical fires filled the cabin with choking white smoke.
Reaching for his blaster, Cody turned to Ludwig and yelled, “You son of a bitch, you sold us out to the Guard.” Blinded by the acrid smoke, Cody couldn’t see that Ludwig was no longer in his seat.
Transporting down to the planet, Ludwig looked up into the purple Algolian twilight just in time to witness a tiny, flickering orange pinprick signifying the end of the Albatross, her captain and crew. “Sorry, Cody,” Ludwig whispered, “it wasn’t my doing.”
Getting his bearings, Ludwig realized he was near an outpost in the highlands, once defended by the Guard and Space Marines, now abandoned to the Algolians. He believed that Artemisia and her court hid in the mountains beyond, to the northwest.
After sundown, the winds on the plateau blew damp and cold. Ludwig shivered, wishing he’d brought the hat and coat he wore at the lodge. He walked up a narrow, winding trail through a pine forest until he came to the crest of a steep hill. Gazing to the north, he saw a panoramic view of broad, green valley bifurcated by a mountain stream that branched into a small river.
He remembered the location of the old Republican fort. Scanning the moonlit landscape below, Ludwig tried to spot its remains. Looking across the river, about three clicks to the north of his position, Ludwig thought he saw signs of human habitation: a cluster of small huts; dim, yellow firelight; white wisps of smoke rising from chimneys.
High above Ludwig, a dark shape hovered; he heard the cry of an eagle. “Rest here tonight, my son; I’ll keep watch for you. Tomorrow morning, I’ll guide you to Artemisia’s camp.”
Recognizing Aquilia’s voice, he felt secure. He found shelter in a small, empty hilltop cave, lay down, closed his eyes and slept until dawn.
The following morning, Ludwig awoke to the sensation of a light tapping on his cheek. He opened his eyes and saw a beautiful golden eagle, its head cocked to one side and its sharp yellow eyes staring quizzically. The majestic predator opened its deadly beak, made a mild peeping sound and then hopped out of the cave on its powerful talons.
Ludwig got up, exited the rock shelter and walked to the edge of the hill where he watched as the crimson star Algol ascended over the mountains on the horizon. The eagle stood before him, on the hill crest, its regal, aureate form silhouetted in purplish shadow.
Ludwig knelt beside the bird and stroked its warm feathers, as though it were a pet. The eagle hopped forward, gave a faint cry, spread its broad wings and flew over the edge of the hill. It climbed into the thermals, where it soared in the bright, red-streaked morning sky.
Ludwig followed Aquilia down the precipitous, rocky incline of the hill’s northern face. He descended through a thickly wooded ravine bordering a clear, swiftly running rivulet that flowed onto the open ground of the grassy plain.
Entering the green valley, Ludwig looked up and saw the eagle circling overhead in the bright, deep blue Algolian morning sky. As he walked north, Ludwig encountered an ominous sign: thick, gray smoke arose from the village. The mild northerly wind carried the telltale acrid stench of burning brush and timber and roasting flesh. Dark scavengers circled over the settlement; Aquilia flew directly into the flock of crows and vultures, scattering them.
Approaching the village outskirts, Ludwig saw evidence of massacre: slaughtered cattle, pigs, sheep and horses. The partially burned remains of men, women and children were scattered throughout the village and many of the bodies mutilated and hanging from doorposts and trees. Ludwig examined some of the bodies. It appeared that the attackers raped most of the women and some of the children before butchering them.
In his years of service on the Algolian planets, he’d witnessed similar atrocities, committed by the rebels against their own people suspected of collaborating with the Republican Federation. This particular outrage had occurred the previous night, while Ludwig slept in his cave. The perpetrators were now long gone. Had they been nearby, in his present state of mind, Ludwig would have killed them all.
Searching the village for any sign of life, Ludwig heard a faint sound emanating from a small, half-burned hut. Peering into the murky interior, he saw the corpse of a young woman, clasping a child to her dead breast. Ludwig entered the hut and found a little girl, about one year old and barely alive.
Ludwig lifted the baby from her dead mother and placed the Aureus on her parched mouth. The child glowed within an aura of green-gold light; her dark eyes opened, her pale face filled with healthy color and she began to cry. Ludwig covered the naked child with some cloth ripped from his undershirt.
Upon exiting the hut with the girl in his arms, Ludwig looked upward, exclaiming, “Mother, I’m ready to see the Queen.”
Aquilia swooped down from the clouds and perched on Ludwig’s right shoulder. “My son, you have the power to teleport the three of us; here are the coordinates.”
Following Aquilia’s directions, Ludwig telekinetically transported himself, the eagle and the child to Queen Artemisia’s mountain fortress.
Ludwig, Aquilia and the little girl materialized in the midst of a rebel camp. They were in a high, verdant valley surrounded by the precipitous, snow covered peaks of Algol 1’s great north-central mountain range.
Witnessing the trio’s miraculous appearance, the superstitious peasant guerillas cowered in fear and awe, several of them prostrating themselves, thinking that Ludwig was a mountain deity. Eventually one of the rebel leaders approached them cautiously. He was a gruff looking heavy-set man of about forty, with long black hair and beard, fierce brown eyes and clad in a brown, fur-trimmed leather coat. Bowing curtly, he asked, “Who are you sir and what do you want from us?”
Ludwig glowered at the man, until he saw the Algolian leader tremble and then declared, “I am Ludovicus, son of Karl Magnus and Princess Aquilia, come to see my aunt, your Queen.”
The man bowed again, this time more respectfully and replied, “I am General Artabazus, my lord; I will take you to the Queen at once.”
“Very well, General. However, before we go to the Queen, I want you to call one of your women to care for this child; she’s cold and hungry.”
The General called a young mother, who took the little girl to her cabin. Then, saying, “Follow me, sir,” Artabazus led Ludwig and Aquilia up a broad, crushed stone covered avenue between rows of rough hewn log and plank dwellings, toward the high, timber palisade and main entrance gate of the Queen’s fort.
As they neared the fortress guard-post, Aquilia took flight from her perch on Ludwig’s shoulder. She climbed swiftly into the thin, cerulean mountain air, circled a moment in Algol’s golden rays and then bid farewell to Ludwig with a sharp cry. Ludwig watched Aquilia depart for her aerie, high above in the snow-crusted, cloud-covered peaks.
Artabazus gazed in awe-struck wonder as the eagle soared into the mountains. The general then turned back to Ludwig. “This way, my lord, the guard will announce you to the Queen.”
Artabazus led Ludwig through the main gate into an enceinte that provided an excellent field of fire from the second line of defense, a crenellated timber walled keep in the center of the main enclosure. The Algolians had built the fortress tower upon a stone and earth inclined foundation approximately thirty yards back from the outer palisades.
Leading Ludwig past the second gate, Artabazus escorted him through a quadrangle to an antechamber, where he left him in the care of two female servants. “Please wait here, my lord. The women will bring you refreshment and attend to your needs until the Queen is ready to meet with you in the main hall.”
His cold blue eyes glaring at Artabazus, Ludwig replied, “Thank you for your hospitality, General, and please extend my gratitude to your Queen.”
Copyright © 2007 by Gary Inbinder