by Gary Inbinder
Table of Contents|
Chapter 14, part 1; part 2
appeared in issue 244.
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.
Aurelia, Slim and Dax sat around the dining hall table, working on a map of Finn's fortress. Ludwig walked to Dax's side, placed a hand on his shoulder, and said, “Well, sport, it's less than twenty-four hours since you were wounded, and you look as good as new.”
Dax turned to Ludwig, smiled, and replied, “Thanks to you, Luddy. You saved my life; I'll never forget.”
“What,” Ludwig exclaimed, “no sarcastic retort? Could this be the beginning of a new Dax?” Everyone laughed, in response, Dax most of all.
Slim commented, “I kind of miss the old Dax; he added a certain patrician cynicism to this motley group of crusaders.”
Dax smirked at Slim. “Weren't you the bad-ass cyborg who wanted to break my aristocratic neck?”
Dax's comment brought forth boisterous laughter from the men. Aurelia interrupted them with a sobering remark. “I hate to break up this good old boy love-fest, but we have some work to do.”
Taking a seat at the table, Ludwig called for an android to bring a pot of fresh, hot coffee, and then said, “Aurelia's right; we need to get moving. What's your plan?”
Aurelia answered for the group, pointing to highlighted areas of the map to illustrate her explanation. “We've sketched the fortress in detail with all the security check-points, guard posts, etc. identified as we remember them. We've also marked the location of the ventilation shafts, central surveillance and security systems, and the area in which we believe it's most likely that they're holding Colonel Dax.
“We plan to climb the back of the hill, where the slope is steep and less carefully guarded, to the ventilation ducts, entering the fortress through the main air shaft. Once inside, we'll go to the central security area, eliminating the guards. After we've taken our first objective, Slim will hack into the systems, disabling the alarms, and locate the Colonel while Dax and I remain on guard. After we locate the Colonel, I'll go to release him and then lead him out of the fortress. We'll rendezvous in the forest, where an android will be waiting with our hover car.”
Slim added, “Claudia left us some outstanding commando equipment that's perfect for this job. We have rock climbing gear and stealth suits that will help us evade detection on our way in and out of the fortress.”
“Stealth suits,” Ludwig interjected. “I've heard of them, but I'll admit that I've never seen one in action.”
“They're cutting-edge camouflage,” Aurelia replied. “We can see and hear one another while remaining silent and invisible to the enemy. There's nothing at the fortress that can penetrate them as long as the cloaking screen is activated.”
“That's right, Luddy,” Slim added. “We'll be invisible and running silent. The guards won't know we're there unless they bump into us.”
The android returned with the coffee, pouring a cup for Ludwig, and then serving the others, and leaving the pot on the table.
After taking a sip of his coffee, Ludwig remarked, “Good work. It looks like you've got everything covered. While you're rescuing Colonel Dax, I'm going to meet with Consul Cato in the alternate world.”
Aurelia turned to Ludwig, her eyes wide with concern. “You're confident you can get around father?”
Ludwig replied, “Don't worry, Aurelia. I've found a weakness that I can attack. Besides, at the very least I'll divert the Consul's attention away from the fortress, increasing your chances for success.”
Aurelia got up from the table, walked to Ludwig, and placed her hand on his shoulder. Bending down, she kissed him on his cheek, and whispered, “I'm not worried, darling. Just promise me you won't take any foolish risks.”
Looking up, he answered, “I promise.” Hearing some sniggering at the other end of the table, Ludwig turned, glared in the direction of the noise and growled, “What are you apes gawking at?”
Slim nudged Dax, grinned, and answered, “Sorry, sir, it's nothing.”
“Very well, gentlemen,” Ludwig said, “Let's get squared away. We move out this evening.”
At sunset, after they finished checking their gear and loading it into the hover car, Aurelia, Slim and Dax bid farewell to Ludwig. As the men entered the car with the android driver, Aurelia lingered a moment, near the entrance to the lodge, watching the bright red sun as it receded behind the purplish-gray, white-capped mountains. Standing beside Ludwig, she searched his expression. Noting he was distracted, she asked, “What are you thinking?”
“Sorry, Aurelia; my mind was on the mission.” Stroking her stubbly head, he bent down, kissed her, and whispered, “Take care of Slim and Dax, Colonel; you're in command, now.”
Smiling, she replied, “Yes, my lord.”
At that moment, Slim leaned out the car window, and yelled, “Shake the lead, ma'am; we've got work to do.”
Pulling away from Ludwig, Aurelia turned her head, calling, “Coming, major,” and then ran to the car. Just before entering the back seat, she glanced back, shouting over the noise of the revving engine, “Take care, Luddy, I'll see you soon.”
The android driver took off, and Ludwig watched for a minute as the hover car flew across the sparkling, snow-crusted plateau, and then disappeared over the mountains. When he could no longer see the hover car, he walked back to his room, changed into his robe, put on his sword-belt, knelt with his sword in front of him, and called upon the power of the Aureus.
Ludwig traveled to the alternate world, materializing on the frozen plain near the castle's drawbridge. The cold wind howled like a hungry dog, searching for its prey amid the dead, leafless forest surrounding the fortress. Placing his right hand on his sword's hilt, Ludwig advanced through the murky gray twilight toward the dimly glowing castle. He was alert for any signs of Consul Finn. Sensing no obstacles to his progress, Ludwig crossed the drawbridge, the great oak entranceway doors swinging open before him.
As he entered the shadowy main hall, Ludwig heard a murmuring lament; the knights appeared, kneeling around a low couch surrounded by a fading, green-gold aura. Ludwig barely recognized the gaunt, emaciated figure lying motionless among the knights, but he assumed it was Cato. As Ludwig neared the group, a young knight sprang to his feet; recognizing Ludwig, he shouted, “My lord; thank God you've arrived.” Turning to the other knights, he continued, “Look, brothers; Lord Ludovicus has come to save our master.”
The whole company of knights arose, bowing respectfully to Ludwig, as he approached. A white bearded elder knight spoke first, urgently imploring Ludwig to come to their master's aid. “Please hurry, my lord, the light is dying. Soon, it will be gone forever.”
The knights cleared a path, as Ludwig ran to Cato's side. Kneeling beside the couch, Ludwig looked at the Consul's face. Cato's eyes were closed, and his irregular breathing a barely audible wheeze. There was hardly any sign of life remaining in the ashen, wizened visage. Dark, viscous blood flowed from the wound in the Consul's side, seeping through linen bandages, saturating his white robe, and dripping into a sticky puddle on the castle's flagstone floor.
Ludwig opened Cato's robe, and removed the bandages. A large, black oozing gash appeared on the Consul's emaciated body; the purulent wound smelled like death. Ludwig recoiled in response to the ugliness and rank odor. He took the Aureus from his neck and held it against the Consul's festering flesh. Immediately, the great hall gleamed with a burst of light. The Consul's eyes opened, his body shuddered, and he cried out in agony as the white-hot Aureus seared his rotting wound.
Ludwig closed his eyes, and clenched his jaw as he shared Cato's pain. His body enveloped in a green-gold ring of fire, Ludwig continued pressing the Aureus against Cato's flesh. Finally, having thoroughly cleansed the wound, Ludwig fell to the floor, unconscious.
Ludwig woke up lying upon a clean purple silk-covered pallet on the floor of the great hall. Two young knights attended him. One knight dabbed Ludwig's forehead with a fine linen cloth dipped in cool, purified and perfumed water taken from a gem-encrusted silver basin. Upon seeing Ludwig's eyes open, the knight called to his companion, asking him to bring wine. The first knight helped Ludwig to a sitting position while gently supporting him with his arms; the other knight held a golden goblet to Ludwig's lips, and said, “Drink, my lord; it will refresh you.”
After swallowing a mouthful of wine, Ludwig felt reinvigorated. He leaped to his feet, demanding, “Where's your master? I must see him at once.”
The first knight answered, “Thanks to you, my lord, our master is completely healed, and resting comfortably. I'll take you to him.”
Ludwig followed the knight toward the north end of the hall, through a long, vaulted corridor, to a circular staircase. As he walked through the castle, and up the stairs, Ludwig noticed a change in the atmosphere. Warm, soft golden light filled the entire structure; the moderately cool and aromatic circulating air carried a fragrance reminiscent of Aurelia's fresh floral and citrus scent.
As he ascended the staircase, Ludwig observed the whitewashed walls covered with paintings of men and women in antique regal robes. When Ludwig reached the first floor, he stopped and stared at the bronze statue of a man dressed in imperial robes and crowned with laurel. Gazing in wonder, Ludwig recalled a similar statue in Finn's penthouse. Turning to the knight, he asked, “Is that Ludovicus?”
The knight replied, “Yes, my lord, it is you.” The knight led Ludwig down the first floor landing, and then stopped and knocked on a carved oak door. A strong deep voice bid them enter.
The knight escorted Ludwig into a bright, airy bedroom. Consul Cato smiled broadly, and stepped forward to greet them. The man was almost unrecognizable; his cheeks glowed with youthful color, his white hair glistened in the golden light, and his blue eyes sparkled.
No longer emaciated, Cato stood an erect six feet two inches tall, and weighed almost two hundred pounds. He walked with the vigorous stride of a healthy young man, half his age; grasping Ludwig's hand, the Consul greeted him warmly. “My lord, you've restored my life, and our land. Come, see what you have done.”
After dismissing the knight, Cato led Ludwig through an opening in the wall, and onto a balcony. Ludwig viewed a vast, verdant plain surrounding the castle, emerald colored, like Aurelia's eyes, and glittering in the golden light of a yellow sun warming an almost cloudless sky.
Looking beyond the castle's environs, Ludwig saw dark green forests of oak, spruce and pine, grassy rolling hills, and the great river, flowing through the meadow like a shimmering strip of silver cloth. Warblers sang in the trees, and high above them, a majestic golden eagle circled, saluting Ludwig with its piercing cry.
“My lord,” Cato declared, “the power of the Aureus, released by your hand, has restored me, and revitalized this land. The signs are unmistakable; you are Ludovicus reborn, who will lead us into the new Imperium.”
Ludwig marveled at the change in Cato, and the land; nevertheless, he had many questions, and he began with a reference to empire. “Consul, I'll admit I'm confused about talk of a new Imperium. Wasn't it your policy to save the Republic from Finn's imperial ambitions?”
Cato replied, “Yes, there's much for us to discuss about the future. However we have little time. I'm afraid your friends may be in danger.”
Stunned by the Consul's remark, Ludwig exclaimed, “What do you know about my friends?”
Smiling, Cato replied, “My androids keep me well informed. I know all about Colonel Dax, and your attempt to rescue him.” Taking Ludwig by the arm, Cato led him back into the room to a small table. “Let's sit for a moment, and talk,” Cato said.
Seated upon intricately carved mahogany chairs, at a golden marble-topped table, Cato and Ludwig drank chilled white wine, poured into gem studded silver goblets from a crystal decanter. After savoring the delicate tang of his wine, the Consul said, “My lord, it's time you knew the truth about your parents, and I trust this revelation will relieve you of a burden of guilt you've been carrying for some time.”
Frowning, Ludwig replied, “May I assume, Consul, that you're referring to my parents' accident?”
Shaking his head, Cato said, “Assume nothing, my lord. For too long Consul Finn has ensnared you in a web of lies. The man and woman who raised you, and whom you, along with Aurelia, killed under orders from Finn, were not your real parents. In truth, you are the natural son of our greatest modern First Consul, Field Marshal Karl Magnus, and his mistress Aquilia, a lady of royal Algolian blood.”
Ludwig laughed bitterly, drank some wine, and remarked, “So, it seems I'm a half-Algolian golden bastard after all.” After pausing a moment to reflect upon Cato's revelation, he asked, “What is truth, Consul?”
Speaking with firm conviction, Cato answered, “The truth is the revealed word of the Creator Deity, the power behind the Aureus. You are the last in a long bloodline of anointed Old Earth rulers who worshipped the Creator. He has chosen you to rebuild his Church, make peace with Algol and establish the New Imperium.
“Consul Finn seeks to destroy the last vestige of the ancient cult of the Creator and eradicate the Algolians, instituting his own genetically enhanced and cybernetically engineered Empire of science and technology. He stole the Spear of Fate, a relic of the ancient Religion, using its power to wound me.
“His assassins murdered your father, his wife and Aquilia, and all your brothers and sisters. You survived because I, a servant of the Creator, saved you. The people you thought were your parents were my agents, and secret believers in the ancient Old Earth cult. Finn used you and his android daughter to eliminate them.
“According to legend, you, the last direct descendent of Old Earth Emperors and Kings would be given the opportunity to choose between Finn and me. The Creator is pleased that you have chosen wisely: His eagle is a sign of His pleasure, and the laurel an omen of your invincible victory. Moreover, you will win back the Spear of Fate from Finn and restore the ancient, Old Earth Religion.”
Speaking confidently, Ludwig affirmed, “I've witnessed the power of the Aureus. It's greater than any technology known to us. I've also witnessed Consul Finn's duplicity and evil. I'm committed to you, and the Creator Deity.”
Cato smiled, placed his hand on Ludwig's shoulder, and exclaimed, “That's splendid, my son.” After a moment, the Consul removed his hand, adding, “Please forgive the familiarity, my lord. I have no children, and I've come to think of you as my son.”
Embarrassed, Ludwig glanced down at his hands, and muttered, “That's quite all right, Consul.” Looking up, he continued, “I plan to denounce Consul Finn at the upcoming pre-election games, and I expect the support of the Republican Guard, and the I.S.P. However, it's imperative that we free Colonel Dax, and coordinate our actions from now until the time of the games.”
Smiling, Cato answered, “Of course, my lord. The power of the Creator assures our success. Soon, you must go to aid your friends at Finn's fortress, and at all times my resources, including my android network, will be at your disposal. However, before leaving, you and I must memorialize our alliance, by reaffirming an ancient compact.”
Copyright © 2007 by Gary Inbinder