by Gary Inbinder
Table of Contents|
Chapter 19, part 1; part 2
appeared in issue 247.
part 1 of 4
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.
Ludwig returned to the lodge the afternoon of the day before the games. He entered through the front door and was delighted to see Aurelia and his companions, joined by Claudia, seated in the main hall around the table reviewing plans for the following day.
Upon hearing him enter the room, they all looked up, their faces registering varying degrees of surprise. Finally, Aurelia asked, “Luddy, is that you?”
Grinning, Ludwig answered, “Of course, it’s me. Who did you expect: Consul Finn?”
Aurelia jumped from her chair and ran to Ludwig. Placing her arms around him, she rested her head against his chest and whispered, “We were all so worried, Luddy. But of course, we knew you’d come back to us, in time.” Looking up, she examined his make-up, contact lenses, dyed hair and false beard. “That’s quite a disguise; I hardly recognized you.”
Ludwig replied softly, “Let’s take a bath together; you can help me clean off the stain and get back to normal. Then we can meet with our friends and go over our plans.” Rubbing her scalp, he added, “It’s growing back quickly; smells nice, too.”
Aurelia smiled, put her arm around Ludwig’s waist, turned toward the table and said, “I’m going to help Luddy get cleaned up and change. We’ll rejoin you in about an hour or so.”
Dax laughed. “Take your time, folks, I’m sure you have much to talk about. In the meantime, we’re not going anywhere.”
Slim added, “Welcome home, Luddy. Enjoy today, big battle tomorrow.”
“Thanks, I intend to enjoy it.” Ludwig kissed Aurelia and then continued, “We’ll be with you in an hour for a conference and then I’d like a drink or two.”
Dax chimed in, “Or three or four.”
“Alright, Dax,” Ludwig laughed, “just make sure old Slim doesn’t have to carry you to the Coliseum.” Already reinvigorated by the sound of his friends’ laughter and Aurelia’s warmth, Ludwig called for the servants to prepare his bath.
Ludwig sat naked on a bench in the bathroom while Aurelia and a female android, clad only in brief towels, scrubbed off the stain from his body while another android washed the dye out of his hair. After almost half an hour of vigorous cleansing, Aurelia declared Ludwig back to normal and fit to enter the bath. She dismissed the servants, saying she would call them in less than an hour.
Aurelia removed her towel, took Ludwig’s hand and led him down a short flight of steps into the tile bathing pool, where they sat together, enjoying the clear, warm, scented water.
“You look great, Luddy,” Aurelia observed, “but you’re red as a boiled lobster.”
Smiling contentedly, Ludwig examined his ruddy chest, replying, “Of course I am. You women almost rubbed my skin off.”
Aurelia laughed softly and said, “That stain was awfully stubborn.” She sponged cool, soothing lotion on his shoulders and neck and then she slid onto his thighs, straddling his lap. Kissing his lips and then his cheek just below the ear, she whispered, “I have news for you; there will be three of us fighting in the arena, tomorrow.”
Startled, Ludwig held her shoulders and gently pushed her back so he could look into her eyes. “I’m not sure I understand what you mean by ‘three of us’?”
Her emerald eyes sparkling with love and desire, she replied, “It can mean only one thing, Luddy: you, me, and our child.”
For a moment, Ludwig was speechless until he noticed a slight frown darkening Aurelia’s face. Holding her close, he whispered, “You’ve given me more incentive to win tomorrow.”
Aurelia kissed him tenderly and replied, “We’ll fight and win for our children, our galaxy, and the future.”
After about forty-five minutes’ relaxation, they left the pool. Standing on the cool, damp tiles, they dried each other with soft, white woolen towels. Ludwig remarked, “Remember the time we made love, on the floor of the bathroom at my hotel?”
Smiling, Aurelia answered, “How could I ever forget?”
Ludwig pulled her down onto the floor and whispered, “I think our friends can wait for us a few minutes more, don’t you?”
Stroking Ludwig’s marble-hard, muscular arms, Aurelia answered, “Make it another half hour.”
After about two hours in the bathroom, Ludwig and Aurelia called the servants and requested a fresh change of clothes. The androids brought underwear, casual shirts, slacks, socks, and shoes. Once dressed, the next day’s “masked challengers” joined their companions in the main hall, relaxed and carefree as though contemplating a midsummer’s day picnic in the country.
Joining the group sitting near the fireplace, they reviewed plans for the following day. Ludwig was pleased to hear Colonel Dax report, “The Guard, I.S.P., and Senate are with us almost one hundred percent. Officers will arrest my android double, and Finn’s few remaining followers will be neutralized.”
“In addition to controlling the Coliseum,” Slim added, “our people will position themselves tactically throughout the Capital City and environs. We’re setting up checkpoints and roadblocks, securing the freeways, bridges, tunnels, commuter lines, sea, air and spaceports. Finn’s faction will be completely cut off and unable to organize. Moreover, Dax has done an outstanding job with the media.”
“Thanks, sport,” Dax interjected. “We’ve got intergalactic broadcasting and the web bloggers in our pocket, cheerleading the ‘Hail Ludwig’ chorus.”
Smiling, Ludwig said, “I see you’ve been busy while I was gone; good work.” Turning to Claudia, he asked, “Are the androids with us?”
“No problem with the ‘C’ group, my lord. There may be some resistance from Finn’s loyal ‘B’ models, and a few Directors at Plotinus might still cause some trouble, but I’m confident our network is on top of it.”
“Thanks, Claudia.” Putting his arm around Aurelia’s shoulder, Ludwig said, “I guess the rest is up to you and me.”
“That’s right, love. We arrive at the Coliseum by hover-car at ten a.m. The Master of Ceremonies, and some picked members of the Guard, and I.S.P. will be waiting for us.”
Dax added, “Wait until you get a load of your outfits; real B&D fantasy, comic book stuff.”
“Oh, no,” Luddy exclaimed, “I hope we won’t look ridiculous?”
Laughing, Dax replied, “Not at all, sport. The crowd loves that sort of thing; it’ll only add more luster to the legend. Provided, of course, that our great leaders don’t screw the pooch.” Dax smirked, and returned to sipping his brandy, seemingly unconcerned about the effect of his disrespectful remark.
After a moment of uncomfortable silence, the Colonel said, “Really, nephew; you go too far. Apologize at once.”
Ludwig grinned and commented, “That’s quite alright, Colonel. Let Dax be Dax.” Turning to his friend, Ludwig said, “I think I have the perfect position for you, in my New Imperium.”
“What’s that, old man? Public Relations Minister?”
“No,” Ludwig replied, “Court Jester.”
Ludwig’s comment broke up the group; even the sober, combat ’droid Claudia laughed.
After a minute or two of laughter, Slim pounded the table and declared, “Alright, comrades; time to drink.”
The companions began a Guardsman’s drinking game, with each trying to outdo the other with outrageous toasts, such as, “To victory, or having our guts splattered all over the arena and eaten by wild dogs,” and “To victory, or having our atoms blasted to the four corners of the cosmos.”
Following a few rounds of brandy, the group, laughing uncontrollably, began singing Old Earth warrior songs. They stomped their feet on the hardwood floor and kept time with their fists pounding on the oak table.
Ludwig got up, staggered to a cabinet at the other end of the hall and fetched some swords. He returned to the group and led the men in a boozy sword dance, thrilling the women with near-missing, death-defying slashes and thrusts.
After clapping and cheering the men’s performance, the women reciprocated. Stripped to their underwear, Aurelia and Claudia performed a popular Amazon dance, providing a spectacular display of their martial arts skills and an alluring view of hard, supple bodies glistening with sweat. When finished, Aurelia returned to Ludwig and sat on his lap, while Claudia knelt at his feet.
Dax handed Ludwig a bottle of brandy. Aurelia tilted back her head and opened her mouth. Ludwig poured the liquor into her, kissing and licking the spirit as it dribbled over her lips and down her chin and throat.
Finally, Ludwig lifted Aurelia into his arms, to the cheers and applause of their comrades. He carried her to the bedroom, where they made love while their friends continued carousing in the main hall.
After a couple of hours, the party quieted down. Ludwig and Aurelia lay in bed, in each other’s arms. Kissing her closed eyes, Ludwig whispered, “Are you asleep?”
Turning toward him, Aurelia sighed and shook her head, murmuring “Um, um.”
“Come with me; I want to show you something.” Taking Aurelia by the hand, Ludwig led his sleepy lover out of bed, to the window. Lifting the sash, Ludwig thrilled at the sharp tingle of fresh, cool mountain air on his bare flesh. Putting his arm around Aurelia, he looked upward, toward Algol, tracing Perseus and Andromeda in his mind’s eye. “Do you see them, Aurelia? The myths and legends we inherited from Old Earth.”
“Yes, love, I see them.”
“We’re warriors, you and I; fighting is in our blood. Do you believe that Cato’s church will change us?”
“I don’t know if we’ll change, Luddy, but I do long for peace.”
Ludwig placed his hand on her smooth, hard belly and said, “There is no peace, not from our first breath to the last. The little one growing inside you, even it doesn’t know peace. Tomorrow, it will be bathed in blood, long before it’s born.”
Aurelia turned to look up at him. Her emerald eyes seemed sad. “Is it our fate, then?”
Looking into her eyes, Ludwig replied, “Yes, Aurelia, it’s our fate.” Turning back toward the stars, he added, “We live in a world of illusion: nothing is certain except my love for you.” He leaned down, kissed her gently and whispered, “Amid all the lies, let us at least remain true to one another.”
She stared at him, her eyes gleaming in starlight. “Luddy,” she promised, “I’ll always be true to you.”
In azure skies
The eagle flies.
Mother of battles,
Powerful and wise.
Symbol of victory,
Conqueror of lies.
Waking just before dawn, Aurelia found the poem on her pillow. Not bad, Luddy, she thought, but today, your sword had better be a good deal mightier than your pen. Turning over, she saw an empty bed. She gently stroked the still warm depression in the silk-sheeted mattress.
Ludwig had already dressed and gone to the main hall. Sitting at table, he was eating his favorite steak and eggs smothered in hot sauce and drinking strong black coffee.
Yawning, Aurelia stretched her arms and then swung her legs over the side of the bedstead. She walked to the dresser, striding barefoot on the cold plank floor. At the dresser, she turned on a light and opened a jewel box. She took out a small cameo locket on a golden chain, opened it, carefully folded the poem and placed it inside. Watching her reflection in the dimly lit mirror, Aurelia fastened the chain around her neck. She would wear Ludwig’s poem in combat.
Aurelia walked to the window and lifted the sash, her nude body covered in gooseflesh in the damp, chilly morning air. Looking out toward the mountains, she could see nothing but thick, white mist. Backing a few paces, she began exercising, fists flying and feet kicking with lighting quick thrusts and blows that could shatter concrete blocks and penetrate titanium steel plate.
After several minutes vigorous workout, she rested a bit and then sponge-bathed with water and cologne. She dressed quickly in plain cotton underwear, blouse, slacks and boots and then left the bedroom, to join Ludwig in the main hall.
Arriving at the breakfast table, Aurelia found the entire group assembled, eating and chattering in eager anticipation of the day’s upcoming events. Greeting them cheerfully, Aurelia said, “That food smells great; I hope you chowhounds left some for me.”
“A bit slow this morning, aren’t we, Colonel?” Dax quipped.
“Not too slow to kick your flabby ass, Lieutenant.”
Laughing at Aurelia’s retort, Ludwig patted the seat next to him and said, “Go to the buffet and load up; there’s plenty left. And then set it down over here.”
Aurelia fetched a plain croissant, a thin slice of melon and a cup of tea and then returned to the table, sitting next to Ludwig.
Looking at her plate, Ludwig shook his head and remarked, “Bird feed; a soldier can’t fight on that.”
Aurelia replied with a right hand blow aimed at Ludwig’s temple; he caught her hand with his left and held it, less than an inch from his forehead.
Dax dropped his coffee cup, spilling half its contents on the table. “No way,” he exclaimed. “I didn’t see that. Could you guys do it again?”
Ludwig lowered Aurelia’s hand to his lips, kissed it and then replied to Dax, “Wait until the masked challenge.”
“You were right, Dax,” Aurelia added, “I am a bit slow this morning.”
Dabbing at his spilled coffee with a napkin, Dax commented, “Imagine what you two must be like in bed; it’s mind-boggling.”
“We’ll take the largest hover car, flying out of the mountains, up Route 1 to the freeway, across the Neo Tiber Bridge and into the Capital City. We should reach the Coliseum right on time, at 10:00.” Claudia was their pilot and she went over some last minute details, just prior to departure.
The group left the lodge at eight a.m.; Claudia used computer navigation and radar, flying through the mist-clouded mountain passes. As they descended over the pine-forested foothills, the fog broke; a vast, green rolling landscape spread out before them, shimmering under a warm, bright sun in a cloudless blue sky.
Passing over the villas, estates and vineyards of the Golden Elite, they merged into the Route 1 traffic, driving through Silver and Bronze exurbs and suburbs bordering the outskirts of the Capital City. Taking the Neo Tiber freeway bridge turnoff, they entered the Capital City limits at 0915.
Traffic was heavy and slow; holiday crowds were already making their way to the Coliseum for Finn’s pre-election games. The hover car carried a special pass that allowed them to use an express lane, cutting the cross-town travel time in half. At the Coliseum parking area, an I.S.P officer entered the car and guided them to a reserved parking area in the garage complex.
Claudia pulled the hover car into a space near the private elevators. The I.S.P officer turned the group over to a Guard Captain, saluted and returned to duty.
Captain Publius was Colonel Dax’s adjutant and well known to everyone in the party. A lean, swarthy, tough-looking man in his early thirties, Publius had served with distinction in the Algolian wars. Facing the group, Publius snapped to attention.
Ludwig smiled, put Publius at ease, and shook his hand warmly, saying, “I’m glad you’re with us, Captain.”
“It’s my honor,” Publius replied. “There’s hardly a man, woman, cyborg or ’droid in the guard, who wouldn’t lay down their lives for you and Lady Aurelia.” Addressing the group, Publius added, “Please follow me. The Master of Ceremonies is waiting for us, in his office.”
Led by Publius, the party boarded an elevator, going up to the sixth floor, where they exited into a brightly lit, alabaster and multi-colored tile decorated atrium. They walked under a blue and green glazed skylight, past bronze statues of gladiators displayed on marble pedestals, trickling fountains, and mosaic-lined carp and eel pools until they entered the office of Alexander Dax, Master of Ceremonies at the Coliseum.
The M.C. was a short, portly, fair-haired, middle-aged man, dressed in formal, patrician toga and wearing two elaborately carved signet rings. He sauntered toward the party. Smiling unctuously and emanating an aura of perfume, he halted a few paces from the group, raised his hand in the ancient, Old Earth salute and exclaimed, “Hail, Ludovicus. Let me be the first to greet you in the fashion of our ancestors.”
Embarrassed, Ludwig answered, “Thank you sir, but perhaps such a greeting is a bit premature.”
Copyright © 2007 by Gary Inbinder