by Gary Inbinder
Table of Contents|
part 1; part 3
appear in this issue.
part 2 of 4
“Pardon me, my lord, for my enthusiasm, but the auspices are most favorable. The gods are on your side; victory is assured.”
Colonel Dax remarked, “My cousin Alexander is an official Augur, Lord Ludwig, and also an adept in the mysteries of Sol Invictus.” Glancing at the M.C., the Colonel added, “Of course, those old observances will be transformed and incorporated into Cato’s Church.”
“Oh, most surely,” Alexander Dax replied.
“I appreciate your augury, sir,” Ludwig said, “however, we need to get down to business. We all have our assignments, and I want to go over the timetable for today’s card.”
“I love soldiers,” the M.C. observed, “so down to earth and full of what the Old Earth Greeks called ‘manliness’.”
Slim muttered, “It’s better than being full of...”
“What was that, sir?” the M.C. inquired.
“Nothing, sir; an idle comment,” Slim replied.
Smiling, Alexander Dax said, “Very well; I have copies of the schedule of events for each of you. Please take your seats at the conference table and I’ll pass them around.”
Dax went to his desk to fetch the schedules, while the party walked to a large, glass-topped table. Before they sat down in comfortable black leather swivel chairs, the M.C. added, “Oh, I almost forgot. There’s a little buffet set up in the corner: coffee, orange juice, bagels, sweet rolls, etc. Please help yourselves.”
Aurelia sat at the conference table, while the rest took advantage of the M.C.’s offer, loading up on goodies at the buffet. Waiting impatiently, she glanced at the nude statues and paintings of gladiatorial combat adorning the pink and blue pastel painted walls and then picked up a pencil, nervously tapping the eraser against a pad of paper.
She had just begun a doodle of a male and female fighting pair, when Ludwig joined her. He balanced a coffee cup, a glass of orange juice, and a plate laden with a toasted poppy seed bagel spread with cream cheese, a blueberry muffin and a cheese Danish. Ludwig sat down and attacked his snack-plate, vigorously. Viewing his furious munching with disdain, Aurelia whispered, “I hope you don’t trip over your flab, Luddy.”
Wiping some crumbs from his chin, Ludwig muttered through a half-full mouth, “Relax; in a few hours we’ll be burning enough calories to melt the polar ice cap.”
Trying to ignore Ludwig, Aurelia turned to the Master of Ceremonies, inquiring, “Do you have sketches of our outfits, Mr. Dax?”
“Of course, Lady Aurelia; they’re here, with the schedule of events.” The M.C. circled the conference table, distributed packets to each member of the group and then took a seat at the foot of the table.
Aurelia opened her packet immediately. She examined the sketches of brief, steel studded leather costumes and blurted, “Yikes; they make us look like the Dominatrix and Dungeon Master on the ‘Bacchanalian House of Pain’ website.”
Smirking, Dax observed, “How would you know, Aurelia?”
Aurelia responded with a narrow-eyed grimace.
Ludwig finished his last bagel-crumb, swallowed some coffee, burped into his napkin and said, “Fine with me, as long as we can fight in them.”
“They’re sure to be a hit with the audience,” the M.C. remarked, “and in addition to being provocative and alluring, they were also designed for freedom of movement and contain ultra-guard polymer inserts to protect certain vital areas.”
“I’m sure they’ll do, Mr. Dax,” Aurelia replied, “it’s just that I’m not thrilled being presented to the intergalactic audience dressed like a thousand an hour B&D mistress.”
The M.C. coughed, affected a concerned frown, and said, “Lady Aurelia, the costumes were designed by an up-and-coming young couturière who happens to be my niece. She’s very supportive of Lord Ludwig and you, as are her friends and family, so I hope you’ll say some nice things about the outfits during the pre-game interview.”
After giving Aurelia a surreptitious nudge, Ludwig replied, “The outfits are excellent, sir. Lady Aurelia and I will be happy to say so in our interview. Now, tell us about our weapons and the opposition.”
“Thank you, my lord. You’ll both have a high-tech gladius; in hands as skillful as yours, it cuts through armor plate like a hot knife through butter. You’ll also have a razor sharp dirk, that’s perfect for administering a coup de grâce. Oh, and a little reminder: a sawing thumbs up means ‘slit the throat’; thumbs sideways means let your opponent live.
“You’ll be facing four combat ’droids and four human criminals; not all at once, of course. There will also be the occasional cyber-beast popping up, but they can favor either you or the opposition. It all depends upon whom they decide to attack.”
“I’m not happy about soiling our hands with the blood of criminals,” Ludwig said. “Who are they, and what are their crimes?”
“I apologize, my lord,” the M.C. replied. “This part of the show is very popular. The humans are members of the ‘Insane Pimps’ street gang, convicted of drug dealing. Given the choice of death by hanging or the arena, they chose to fight. One is a great, muscle-bound lump named Ursa Major. Considering what someone did to his brain and genitals, he’s better off dead.”
Ludwig stared at Alexander Dax, but made no further comment concerning the gang members. “Very well, sir. Let’s go over the schedule quickly, and then I want to talk about Consul Finn.”
“Thank you, my lord. Starting at eleven-thirty, there are executions, including the ritual strangulation of an Algolian commander, General Artabazus.” Smiling obsequiously, the M.C. continued, “I believe you know the General, my lord? Queen Artemisia sent him as a peace offering; she thought it would please you.”
Ludwig frowned at the thought of feeding a warrior to a bloodthirsty mob; however, he also remembered the slaughtered village. “I don’t take pleasure in the garroting of a soldier, regardless of who he is or what he’s done. Nevertheless, I understand the Queen’s gesture.”
Clearing his throat, the M.C. said, “Of course, my lord,” and then added, “After we clean up the mess, we have a sensational cyber-beast hunt; a big favorite with the children. You and Lady Aurelia are next on the card, after the cleaning crew and the lunch-time intermission.”
Ludwig looked around the table; his jovial mood gone, there was a slight hint of sadness in his eyes. In response, the group became quiet and serious. “Aurelia and I will take care of the challenge. However we need to know what’s going on with Consul Finn and his party. Who wants to speak first?”
Colonel Dax replied, for the group. “Consul Finn will have two cyborg bodyguards and the false Ludwig and Aurelia in his box; that’s all. Once Finn’s proclaimed you and Aurelia the winners of the challenge, the Guard and I.S.P will block the exits, trapping the Consul and his entourage.
“Consul Cato will enter the arena; you will denounce Consul Finn, and Cato will offer you the oak leaf crown, to the acclaim of the Senators, Guard, I.S.P, and, we assume, the remainder of the audience.
“Major Slim, Captain Publius, my nephew Dax and Claudia, will take care of Finn’s companions. You, my lord, will deal with Consul Finn.”
“Thank you, Colonel.” Studying his friends’ faces, Ludwig saw firm commitment; even the soft M.C. appeared resolute. “Does anyone else want to say something?” Waiting a moment and hearing no response, Ludwig turned to Aurelia and said, “I guess we’d better get ready.”
Aurelia smiled, put her hand on Ludwig’s arm and then addressed the M.C., “Where to now, Mr. Dax?”
“I’ll have an android escort you and Lord Ludwig downstairs to make-up, wardrobe, the armory, and then the press-room for your interview.” The M.C. got up from the conference table, walked to his desk console and pushed a button.
Within minutes, a young female android entered the office, bowed and waited for orders. “Cecilia, you will be Lord Ludwig and Lady Aurelia’s guide until it’s time for them to enter the arena. Attend to their needs and answer any questions they might have.”
“Yes, sir,” the android replied. Bowing toward Ludwig and Aurelia, she said, “Please follow me.”
Ludwig and Aurelia got up from the table, and the others stood at attention. Ludwig noticed a tear in Slim’s human eye that the cyborg immediately wiped. Before leaving, Ludwig turned to his followers and said, “Thank you, all, for your loyal support. Good luck.”
Colonel Dax saluted, shouting, “Hail, Ludovicus.”
The others responded, “Hail, Ludovicus.”
Ludwig winced at the salute. Blushing with a sheepish grin, he nodded to his entourage, took Aurelia by the arm and then followed Cecilia as she led them out of the room.
* * *
Attired in a patrician toga and smoking a Churchill cigar, Consul Finn sat behind a desk in his study. The false Ludwig and Aurelia, dressed in similar Old Earth Roman style, took their place in seats by his side, and two cyborg guards, Macro and Sejanus, sat across from them. The bodyguards wore modern gray uniforms, with polymer shield vests, and each carried a holstered blaster on his leather gun belt.
“We’re good to go, whenever you’re ready, Excellency,” Macro said. “We’ll take the underground tunnels to the Coliseum and send a hover car through the streets to divert the media.”
After stubbing out his cigar in a silver ashtray, the Consul shuffled through some papers and then, without looking up, replied, “Very well.” Finn ceased his rummaging, contemplated his followers with a benign smile and continued; “I want to thank you all for your loyal service. As you know, today’s events will be crucial. According to our intelligence, Ludwig, with Cato’s backing, will appear at the games. If Ludwig survives, he’ll denounce and challenge me before one hundred thousand citizens and billions more throughout the galaxy.
“I’ll accept his challenge. Powerful as Ludwig is, I still have something he lacks. I can defeat him in single combat with the Spear of Fate. According to Old Earth legend, the person who controls the Spear will rule the New Imperium. I welcome the fight; however, I won’t order any of you to accompany me. The Senate, Republican Guard and the I.S.P. back Ludwig and Cato; I’m prepared to face Ludwig alone and trust my destiny to the power of the Spear.”
The pseudo-Ludwig replied, “We’ve already discussed this among ourselves, Excellency. We’re with you, all the way.”
Dabbing his eye with a handkerchief, Finn rose from his chair, declaring, “I’m touched by your loyalty and most grateful. Together we’ll punish the traitors and turn apparent defeat into a great victory.”
Led by pseudo-Ludwig, the little band of cyborgs and androids jumped to their feet and raised their hands in salute, crying, “Hail Finn.”
* * *
Consul Cato and Queen Artemisia rode to the Coliseum in a blaster-proof armor plated stretch hover-limo. Dressed in antique patrician toga and stola, they relaxed in luxurious, ergonomically designed leather armchairs.
The limousine had blackout one-way windows in the passenger compartment, but crowds lining the Capitol Hill Streets recognized it as Cato’s and cheered and waved. Sipping chilled, Chateau Deneb champagne from a crystal flute, Artemisia observed, “I’ll admit I was a bit concerned about making such a conspicuous drive to the Coliseum, but it seems to be going very well so far.”
Cato smiled, “Not to worry; we own the Capitol Hill streets. I intend to make a grand entrance before the intergalactic media at the V.I.P circle, while Finn slinks in through the back door.”
Artemisia rested her glass on the back-seat mini-bar, took out her make-up kit and checked her face in the natural light mirror. “Do you think I look ready for the red carpet?” she asked.
Taking her free left-hand in his, Cato kissed the slender fingers, replying, “You look fabulous, as always, my dear.”
Closing her compact, Artemisia turned to the Consul and said, “What a lovely compliment from the galaxy’s second most eligible bachelor. But one rumor says that you think of nothing but your god and politics while another has it you care more for your knights.”
Still holding the Queen’s hand in his, Cato answered, “There are many worlds in the cosmos, and I function appropriately in all of them.”
Smiling demurely, Artemisia carefully withdrew her hand. “My nephew might think our soon to be Pontifex a bit cynical.”
“Lord Ludwig has a punctilious sense of honor and a truly noble character. However, when necessary, he’ll hold his nose and do what’s right for the Imperium. Take the case of General Artabazus and the massacred village. He wanted Artabazus punished, but for the sake of peace and politics when meeting with you, he refrained. Likewise, I doubt whether he enjoys seeing a fellow warrior sacrificed to the mob, nevertheless, he’ll let it be, for the greater good.”
Staring at Cato, Artemisia asked, “Do you think Luddy knows that Artabazus acted under orders? After all, the General didn’t do anything he wasn’t told to do.”
Sighing, Cato poured a glass of champagne; holding it up to the artificial light, he studied the wine’s sparkle; sniffing, he let the bubbles tickle his nostrils, before savoring and swallowing a mouthful. “Excellent champagne,” he remarked. I’ll bet you had nothing like it on Algol 1.”
Turning to look out the one-way window at the cheering crowds lining Republic Boulevard, Artemisia replied, “Yes, Consul, nothing like it.”
* * *
Aurelia and Ludwig lay naked on sterile paper-covered adjustable tables in the Coliseum spa, having their body hair removed. In Aurelia’s case, this operation amounted to little more than a fashionable bikini wax; for Ludwig, it was a far more extensive, uncomfortable and humiliating procedure.
Inspecting their smooth bodies, the head cosmetologist gushed, “You two are just flawless, like a god and goddess of war.”
Following their depilation, each received a cursory hot-oil massage, after which a spa attendant gave them short, cloth robes to wear, and disposable flip-flops to protect their feet from the cold, concrete hallway floors.
Cecilia led them to wardrobe, where they were dressed in their brief, leather costumes. Studying her reflection in an ultra-bright full-length, three-way mirror, Aurelia scowled at the black-leather push-up bustier and butt-revealing thong, muttering, “Show me the way to the dungeon.”
Standing at the mirror next to hers, Ludwig leaned toward Aurelia and whispered, “Remember, you’re talking about an Alexandra Dax original. At least they provide for movement, and the sandals are designed for quick footwork.”
Aurelia grinned; eyeing his metal-studded, leather codpiece with its priapic connotations, she replied, “Whatever you say, Luddy.”
Following the costuming, an attendant led them to a dressing table, where they were fitted with skull covering three-quarter face leather masks that made them look like a pair of angry raccoons.
Checking his mask to make sure there was no impairment of his vision or breathing, Ludwig commented, “It’s alright; no modification necessary.”
Aurelia nodded in agreement.
Cecilia next escorted them to the armory, where they tested their hi-tech swords, bucklers and dirks. After choosing their weapons from a fine assortment, they walked to a fencing area to practice.
Treating the armorers to some skillful sparring, Ludwig and Aurelia drew a round of applause and the greybeard Master Armorer’s praise. “That’s the best swordplay I’ve seen in my thirty years at the Coliseum; I’d say you two have a better than fifty-fifty chance.”
Smiling, Ludwig saluted the Armorer, “Thanks, I’ll remember that.”
Approaching Ludwig and Aurelia, Cecilia said, “Your Excellencies are right on schedule; I’m going to take you to a quick meeting with the producer of ‘Intergalactic Gladiator Superstars’, after which you’ll have a brief interview with Michelle and her daughter, Michelle Junior, followed by some publicity photos.”
“I can’t wait,” Aurelia replied.
Michelle was a middle-aged, dyed-blonde, wafer-thin frizzy-haired frenetic, who seemed perpetually high on happy dust. Michelle Junior was a twenty-five year younger clone of her mother. Both dressed in identical, shocking pink, gold-spangled pantsuits, their short, anorexic frames teetering on four-inch high, open-toed platform shoes.
Almost tripping over her heels, Michelle tottered over to Ludwig and Aurelia. Bowing spasmodically, she said, “Junior and I are so honored to make your Excellencies’ acquaintance.” Moving unpleasantly close, Michelle added, in a conspiratorial whisper, “Of course, we know who you are, but the audience doesn’t. So, we’re going to make this interview very quick and respectful, following the little script our producer gave you.”
Copyright © 2007 by Gary Inbinder