by Gary Inbinder
Table of Contents|
Chapter 20, part 1;
part 2; part 3
appeared in issue 248.
part 4 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.
After a few minutes of jubilant commotion, the stadium grew quiet. Advancing toward the center of the arena, the Iron and Bronze champions approached to within ten paces of Ludwig and Aurelia and then halted. The challengers raised their swords in salute, the champions returned the compliment, and then both pairs turned toward Finn’s box.
An announcer’s voice on the P.A. system reverberated throughout the stadium: “Consul Finn, Consul Cato, Senators, Officers and Citizens of the New Earth Republican Federation, and friends and allies across the galaxies, we present the masked challengers, vanquishers of the ‘Insane Pimp’ thugs, the noble Mr. and Ms. X.”
The crowd broke into an enthusiastic round of cheering and applause. Repeating the salutation, the P.A. announced the undefeated android champions, to a similarly resounding audience reception.
Following the ovation, the pairs saluted Finn, and the Consul gave the signal to begin. Ludwig matched with the Bronze female and Aurelia with the Iron male. The skillful pairs circled one another, feinting and parrying with bucklers and swords, probing defenses and studying weaknesses and strengths.
After several minutes, neither side seemed to gain headway, when suddenly, the Bronze female struck; the crowd gasped as her lightning-quick jab nicked Ludwig’s left side. However, the polymer insert in his outfit deflected the thrust. Ludwig parried and counter-attacked, slashing the android on her bare right thigh, drawing blood and a round of applause from the audience.
The cut enraged the undefeated android: she charged at Ludwig, attacking him furiously while he parried and countered, searching for an opening. After some heated combat, Ludwig gained a perfect sense of the android’s timing and pattern of assault. He observed how she sometimes dropped her buckler in an advance, leaving her left armpit exposed.
Moving for position like a chess master, Ludwig feinted, drawing his opponent’s weak side into striking position and then hitting her with a deep thrust into the armpit. Stunned, the android dropped her buckler; instantly Ludwig struck her a second time with a vicious slash across her masked face. Finally, Ludwig smashed the dazed and staggering android’s head with his buckler, bringing her to her knees.
The entire audience leaped to its feet, standing in awed silence, as Ludwig stood behind the shocked, blinded and bleeding android. Ripping off her mask, he grasped her hair, jerked back her eyeless head, placed his dirk to her throat and awaited the signal.
There was a mixed audience reaction; many in the bronze section wanted their champion to live. Weeping, they gave the ‘let live’ sign; the majority of the other classes voted for death. Turning to Finn, Ludwig saw the glowering Consul give the death sign. Feeling the android go limp from loss of blood, Ludwig administered the coup de grâce. The bronze champion’s body slumped to the arena floor, where it twitched for a moment and then lay still.
Hearing a collective shriek from the audience, Ludwig turned just in time to see the Iron champion knock Aurelia down with a powerful blow of his buckler. Rooted to his spot by rules that forbade him from assisting a fallen companion, Ludwig watched as the android moved forward to deliver the death blow.
The excited spectators got up, as the android loomed over a motionless Aurelia who lay on her back on the arena floor. Suddenly, Aurelia came to life with a codpiece-splintering kick to the groin, making the agonized android drop his weapon and shield. As he crumpled, Aurelia grabbed the falling champion and threw him over her head. She then executed an astonishing back flip and half-twist, thrusting her sword into the android’s neck before his flying body settled on the ground.
The crowd went wild, with the exception of the Iron section, which stood in bewildered silence. Ludwig walked to Aurelia’s side and held her left hand. Turning toward Finn’s box, they raised their swords in what was becoming more a gesture of triumphant defiance than a salute.
Clapping and banging their folding chairs, the audience began a rhythmic chant to the accompaniment of the scoreboard’s electronic band: “Masked Challengers,” clap, clap, clap, “Masked Challengers”: bang, bang, bang.
Finn slumped back in his armchair, muttering, “It isn’t over yet.”
The chanting continued as the robot clowns and cleaning crew prepared the arena for the next round. Once the crew removed the bodies and spread fresh sand, it was time to introduce the next pair of champions.
Following their introduction, the Gold and Silver ’droids entered the arena; having witnessed the defeat of their comrades, the pair substituted looks of grim determination for overconfident smiles.
The card paired Aurelia with the Silver female champion and Ludwig with the Gold male. They were more evenly matched than in the first round, and as they began to fight, some of the audience grew bored with a display of expert fencing. After a few minutes, the stadium became quiet, and, here and there, catcalls broke out, such as, “Stop dancing and start kicking ass!”
Reacting to the audience, the stage-manager released two cyber-tigers. The restless crowd screamed with delight, as the beasts sprang from invisible trapdoors.
The fighting pairs disengaged, as the cyber-cats circled them. Stronger, swifter and far more deadly than the cyber-panther, the snarling tigers stalked their prey. A yellow-eyed female crouched several feet from Aurelia and began a wary approach. Aurelia watched the tiger while remaining on guard for her opponent, who used the beast to her advantage, approaching in hope of catching Aurelia unawares. The tension brought the audience to their feet.
The tiger came within a few paces of Aurelia and then pounced. Simultaneously, the Silver champion attacked, using the beast as a screen. Instantly, Aurelia sidestepped, slashing the tiger’s exposed belly and parrying the champion’s well-aimed blow with her buckler.
The crowd roared its approval, as the disemboweled cat rolled onto its side, panting and dying on the sand. From that moment, the fencing match transformed into an intense, no-holds barred, crowd-pleasing brawl.
Ludwig and the Gold champion’s tiger showed less aggression at first, remaining equally distant from both fighters. Finally, Gold made his move: catching Ludwig off-guard, he knocked him down with his buckler. At that moment, the tiger charged, leaping at the champion’s back. Gold half-turned, slashing the tiger with his sword, giving Ludwig just enough time to regain his feet and thrust his gladius into the android’s hip.
The crowd screamed, as the wounded champion and beast struggled on the arena floor. After driving his gladius into the beast’s white belly, the crippled and bleeding android regained his feet, facing an unhurt Ludwig.
For a moment, the two warriors contemplated one another; the severely wounded android smiled and took the fight to Ludwig.
The champion attacked with all his remaining strength. Ludwig blocked the gladiator’s blows with his buckler and then drove his gladius deep into the champion’s lower abdomen. The dying gladiator dropped his sword and fell to his knees. He struggled for breath and bled from his mouth; looking up at Ludwig, the android appeared to be trying to speak.
Unable to hear above the crowd noise, Ludwig knelt by the dying gladiator’s side and placed his ear next to the android’s lips.
His vision obscured by streaming blood, the Gold champion gasped, “I’d like to know your name, sir.”
Ludwig replied, “I’m Ludovicus, son of Karl Magnus. I hope they spare your life.”
The gladiator shook his head and replied, “Thank you, sir, but I know I’m finished.”
Ludwig drew his dirk and waited. The entire audience of patricians, plebeians and androids made the sign for life; Finn, the ultimate arbiter, demanded death. Ludwig dispatched the champion, respectfully laying his body on the arena floor.
The audience groaned and murmured over the needless death of a gallant fighter. However, their attention soon turned to the heated battle between Aurelia and the Silver android. Both had superficial wounds, but neither had gained an advantage until the Silver Champion disarmed Aurelia with a lightning quick flick of her sword. Electrified by Silver’s magnificent swordplay, the spectators jumped to their feet as the gladiator knocked Aurelia onto her back with a powerful punch of the buckler.
Anticipating their champion’s victory, the Silver section began a chant, until Aurelia, lying on her back, tripped her advancing opponent with a swift kick of her long, powerful legs. The crowd screamed with excitement as the two female warriors grappled desperately on the arena floor.
Eventually, Aurelia’s superior strength overwhelmed her adversary; the Silver champion lay on her back in the bloody sand, exhausted and immobilized with Aurelia on her chest. Aurelia pulled off the champion’s mask and stared into the android’s still defiant blue eyes. Drawing her dirk, Aurelia placed it against the defeated gladiator’s exposed throat and then looked up at the spectators.
Realizing they’d just witnessed a once in a lifetime event, the entire audience of one hundred thousand cheered, giving the sign of mercy. Aurelia turned to Consul Finn; the crowd grew silent and sullen as he jerked his thumb upward, with the familiar cutting motion.
The beaten champion looked at Aurelia and calmly said, “I’m ready, ma’am; do it quickly.”
Aurelia sheathed her dagger; shaking her head, she replied, “No, I won’t kill you.” Rising to her feet, Aurelia held out her hand to her fallen opponent, as the audience witnessed the scene in stunned silence.
Bewildered for a moment, the Silver champion grabbed Aurelia’s hand and rose to her feet. Staring in amazement at her masked adversary, the android exclaimed, “Thank you, ma’am; I’m forever in your debt.”
Still holding her opponent’s hand, Aurelia embraced the Silver android, to the spectators’ roaring approval.
Looking at the spectacle in disbelief, Finn said, “They can’t do that. It’s against the rules.”
While Ludwig and Aurelia were fighting in the arena, Slim, Captain Publius, Dax and Claudia had moved into position in the corridor outside Consul Finn’s box. In charge of the operation, Slim said to his group, “Remember, our objective is to take them alive, if possible. The Guard and the I.S.P. are covering all the exits; no one gets out unless we want them to.
“I’ve placed a charge on the door to Consul Finn’s box. If necessary, we can blow the lock and lob in stun grenades and gas to disable them. Lord Ludwig has promised to spare their lives, if they surrender.”
“Excuse me, Major,” Publius asked, “does that apply to Consul Finn?”
“Lord Ludwig will deal with Consul Finn, Captain,” Slim replied.
Hearing a loud, sustained roar from the arena, Dax remarked, “That’s ominous.” At that moment, a guard exited Consul Cato’s box and signaled the group.
Smiling, Slim exclaimed, “That’s it, friends; Ludwig and Aurelia won the challenge.”
As the spectators cheered, chanted and sang, Finn noticed Cato leaving his box. Turning to his entourage, Consul Finn said, “It’s come down to me and Ludwig. If I lose, I want you all to surrender; I’m sure Ludwig will be merciful.” Waving off his companions’ protests, the Consul added, “I forbid you to die needlessly. That’s an order.”
Macro answered for the group, “We’ll do as you command, Excellency.”
The Silver Champion turned to Aurelia and said, “This is your moment, ma’am. I’ll never forget you.” Smiling, and waving to the crowd, she left the arena to a standing ovation. As she approached Ludwig, he raised his sword in salute; the android stopped, acknowledged him with a respectful bow and then continued toward the gladiators’ exit.
Joining Aurelia in the center of the arena, Ludwig embraced her and then they both raised their swords in a victory salute. The frenzied crowd roared; wealthy patricians threw gold coins into the arena, lower classes threw flowers and less respectable fans tossed little plastic missiles containing scented underwear, photos, and videophone numbers.
As the sky artificially darkened, laser lights flashed across the stadium, and blazing fireworks boomed, popped and whizzed above the scoreboard. Electronic bands played, and one hundred thousand voices joined in singing “The Battle Cry of the Republic.”
Finally, resounding above the din, the P.A. announced, “Consul Finn, Consul Cato, Senators, Officers and Citizens of the New Earth Republican Federation, and friends and allies across the galaxies, for the first time in more than a century, we have a pair of winners in the fabulous Masked Challenge.”
Following a minute or two of tumultuous celebration, the P.A. continued, “Mr. and Ms. X; it’s now time to receive your reward from our host, Consul Finn.”
Ludwig and Aurelia sheathed their swords and then followed a light beam that led them in the direction of the Consul’s box. Standing at attention about twenty paces from the protective shield, they saluted, waiting for the Consul to speak.
Finn got up and walked to the front of his box where he addressed the crowd through a microphone. “Citizens and friends of the Republic; today, we have seen a display of courage and martial arts skills unequaled in the history of the arena. Mr. and Ms. X; you’ve earned the laurel wreath, one million gold Republican, and the admiration and adulation of billions throughout our galaxy and beyond. Mr. and Ms. X, I salute you.”
After an interval of a few minutes for more cheers and applause, the P.A. said, “Now, Citizens and friends, the moment galaxies have been waiting for; the unmasking.”
In response, the stadium filled with a chanting chorus: Unmask, unmask, unmask.
Ludwig and Aurelia removed their masks, their faces flashing in jumbo projection on the gigantic scoreboard screen. Immediately, upon seeing their faces, the crowd grew quiet.
Thousands of perplexed fans murmured, Oh my god; it’s Ludwig and Aurelia.
That’s impossible; they’re sitting in Consul Finn’s box.
After waiting a moment for the audience to get a good look at them, Ludwig raised his right hand for silence. The Coliseum hushed. “Citizens and friends of the New Earth Republic, I am Ludwig, son of Field Marshal Lord Karl Magnus and Princess Aquilia of Algol. I come here seeking justice and to denounce the murderer of my family, a traitor and conspirator who plots the murder of Consul Cato and the overthrow of our government.”
Glaring at Consul Finn, Ludwig paused for effect, as members of his faction, planted throughout the stadium, shouted: Name the traitor, Lord Ludwig. Point him out to us.
After a moment, Ludwig again raised his hand. As the angry crowd grew silent, Ludwig pointed at Finn, exclaiming, “There is the traitor! Consul Finn, I denounce you and demand satisfaction, according to the ancient laws of our Old Earth ancestors. I challenge you to trial by combat.”
The rumblings of Ludwig’s claque swelled into an overwhelming roar: Death to Finn. Down with the traitor; let him fight Ludwig, now.
Yellow eyes blazing, Finn shouted into the microphone, “I accept the challenge of this half-Algolian bastard.”
The Coliseum filled with green-gold light; thunder boomed, yellow forks of lightning struck the arena and gale force winds swept freezing rain through the stadium as a powerful telekinetic force penetrated the protective shield. The invisible screen on Finn’s box shattered, sending millions of tiny, razor sharp shards flying across the arena.
Panicking, thousands of screaming fans ran for the exits, the strong shoving and trampling the weak as they fell in the aisles.
Standing in the center of the arena, with Aurelia at his side, Ludwig watched as Finn raised his right hand, summoning the Spear of Fate. Concentrating on the power of the Aureus, Ludwig clenched his teeth as the scar on his chest blazed like a red-hot brand. Turning to Aurelia, he shouted, “Don’t move an inch; you’re safe beside me.”
The spear materialized in the Consul’s hand; cursing Ludwig, Finn hurled the weapon at his enemy’s heart.
In a movement quicker than Aurelia’s super-human android eyes could see, Ludwig’s right hand grasped the spear’s shaft, six inches from his chest.
Sinking into his chair, Finn stared at Ludwig in dismay, muttering, “No, it’s impossible.”
Ludwig raised the Spear of Fate high above his head; the storm abated, the sun shone in a clear, blue sky. Those remaining in the stadium heard the piercing cry of an eagle. Looking up, they saw Aquilia circling overhead. Returning to their seats, they watched as Consul Cato emerged from the shadows, carrying an oak leaf crown.
Ludwig lowered the spear, greeting the Consul with a nod and a smile.
Cato stopped a few paces from Ludwig, bowed, and then walked to Ludwig’s side. Holding the crown above Ludwig’s head, Cato shouted, “Ave Ludovicus Augustus, Dominus Noster.”
Tens of thousands of voices of spectators who remained in the stadium and billions more watching on video-screens and the intergalactic web replied, Hail Ludwig, our Emperor.
Copyright © 2007 by Gary Inbinder