Queen Morgause of Lothian and Orkney eyed the course setting on the bridge flag console of her battle cruiser, the Glory. She remembered every parsec of the route from Lothian to Glastonbury. She hadn't paid all that much attention on the way out the first time, sixteen years ago; but on the way back, every benchmark and minor course correction had been a step closer to Lot's conviction by the kings' council for happening to be the C.O. of the disastrous Gael occupation of said planet.
Of course it was entirely unfair for them to blame Lot for it; and Morgause had convinced the kings of this. In the Gael way. She invoked the Right of Trial by Blood, and (over the course of five days, without sleep) had (as Lot's champion) bested enough of the Council in single, mortal combat that there hadn't been a voting quorum left to hand down a verdict.
Sir Lamorak approached the flag station. "I have," he said, "good news and bad news."
Unlike most of her colleagues and vassals, Morgause was obscurely entertained by Lamorak's cleverness with words. Trying to play along, she guessed correctly which to ask for first. "What's the good news?"
"The good news is, the knights are ready to fight for their honor and destroy any enemy."
"What's the bad news?"
"The bad news is, the knights are ready to fight for their honor and destroy any enemy, now."
Morgause saw his point immediately. "They need a diversion, something to keep them finely honed, lest they lose their edge before we get to Glastonbury." Something like a planet to plunder.
"But to indulge them," Lamorak completed the argument, "will give our plans away to the British and the Glastonburians."
"The plan is based on the observed fact that the Glastonburians are not to be feared," Morgause dismissed. "But the British - is surprise better, or to tip our hand? ... Do we know yet which starcruiser patrols the Glastonbury sector presently?"
The response made it obvious that it was the receipt of this intelligence that had actually brought Lamorak to the flag station. "The Excalibur," said Lamorak.
"Excalibur!?!" Confusion and a fierce joy fought for Morgause's heart. "But, at the Grail planet -"
"A new Excalibur," Lamorak said.
"Who -?" Morgause started to ask in a whisper; but the light in Lamorak's eyes was answer enough.
Morgause looked at the course chart just to backstop her memory. "There's a Camellaird colony world four hours ahead. We'll stop there for a day."
"Success, my queen," Lamorak saluted, and went to relay the order, leaving Morgause alone. Morgause sank back into the flag chair, eyes peering forward into history.
This was going to be glorious.
"The autonomy policy is for the protection of less advanced planets that British and Round Table vessels encounter," said Lancelot.
"How utterly noble and pre-Heisenberg," sneered Nimue.
Overhearing them, Arthur tried to re-exit the mess before Nimue saw him and roped him back into this argument that started up every time the CAVE landed on the Excalibur; but he wasn't quick enough.
"Sire," Nimue called from the table where she and Lancelot were eating breakfast, "come defend your mindless enforcement of your delusional regulations."
"If that's your best offer," said Arthur, "I'll eat on the bridge."
"Coward," sniffed Nimue. But Arthur, less goaded than resigned, joined them and was served breakfast by a DWARV.
"Rome's history alone has shown many times," Lancelot said, "that, even if well-intentioned, a more advanced society can only harm a less advanced if involved in its internal affairs."
"Don't you interfere in history by meddling the way you do?" Arthur asked Nimue as he ate. "Don't you change history? Even we primitive British know the danger of that. Isn't that why all the Avalonian sorcerors but you and Merlin live by a nonintervention directive much like ours?"
"Merlin healed history! What is a people's true history?" Nimue asked rhetorically, obviously gone into oratorical mode. "It is that produced by the free will of those living it, without oppression. Merlin removed oppression! and then he stepped out of the way. I'm proud to try to carry on his legacy." Somehow through this declamation she managed to never break the rhythm of her hand's motion with her fork to her mouth. Arthur wondered how she kept her broomstick figure.
"And your observation about the Avalonians is specious," she added carelessly. Arthur knew that Nimue, loathe as she - and Merlin before her - might be to admit it, couldn't operate as she did without the Avalonians' tacit approval, in spite of their official policy.
"There's certainly nothing wrong with what you say, on an interplanetary level," said Arthur. "But a planet's internal affairs are ... well, internal. Maybe it's your place to topple a planet's homegrown autocrats - maybe - but it's not ours."
Nimue snorted. "This from the high king Merlin helped place on the throne. And who, I might add, has gone on to achieve the worst reputation in history for autonomy policy violations."
"I thought you were smarter than to buy into that media sensationalism, Nimue," Arthur said. "In almost all cases of my supposed 'violations' of the autonomy policy, the King's Council of Britain has ruled that the policy didn't in fact apply. Usually under the self-defense provision, such as with the supercomputer Vaalhaallaa. After all, a planet that can threaten a starcruiser can hardly be considered unadvanced enough for autonomy policy protection.
"Or under the provision for previous interplanetary contamination, such as on Newralle, where what I did was counteraction of existing intervention by the Saxons.
"In the remaining cases, where there was policy applicability, the violations were minor, such as the rescue landing that accidentally came in front of the soldiers on the Danish planet. These resulted in what few, minor demerits there are on my record, an average amount as starcruiser commanders' records go. Everything else is just hype."
"Until you blew up your ship."
Arthur ignored this for the cheap shot it was. They were sitting in the mess hall of the effect on Arthur's space career of that little escapade. "Face it, Nimue - you can't convince me that the autonomy policy isn't a wise policy, or that my own commitment to it is less than full, any more than Merlin ever could."
Nimue had quieted under this calm verbal onslaught. After a moment she said, "But there is evil in the universe that must be stopped." There was pleading in her tone, though Arthur wasn't sure for what. Arthur had never seen Nimue so subdued and vulnerable since years before Merlin's death, but before he could say anything more the intercom whistled the captain's call.
"King Arthur to the bridge," came Dinadan's voice.
Arthur and Lancelot rose from the table, DWARVes moving toward it to clear their meals. Nimue followed one DWARV to grab several more bites from her plate before joining the knights uninvited while Arthur stopped at the intercom. "Arthur here. What's up?"
"I have Sir Amustan of the colony New Camellaird on screen, sire. He says they've been attacked by a Gael war fleet."
Arthur looked sharply over at Lancelot. "Red alert, Dinadan. I'm on my way."
"This is King Arthur," said Arthur over the red alert klaxons as Lancelot and Nimue followed him onto the bridge from the elevator. Lady Bedivere still had Amustan on the main screen, much the worse for wear, blood tricking down one temple. "What's happening on New Camellaird?" Arthur moved straight into the center seat.
"A Gael battle fleet of some two dozen cruisers arrived here yesterday," said Amustan, "and conducted a punitive raid all over the planet for exactly one Gael day."
Amustan obviously realized the significance of the time period, as did Arthur, who looked over to the science station where Lancelot was looking to him.
"Whetstone," said Nimue for them all. The one-day "whetstone" was a Gael war tradition. On the screen Amustan nodded.
"Why didn't you call us earlier?" Arthur wanted to know.
Amustan grinned, bared teeth belying the soft voice. "We were having too much fun."
"Almost as bad as the Gaels," Nimue sniffed.
"We outnumbered them thousands to one, after all," said Amustan. "It would have been cowardly."
"Thank you for the warning," Arthur said to Amustan. "Do you need us to send aid?"
"The strong will survive," Amustan said. "The weak have already perished. Victory in your struggles." Amustan signed off.
"Whetstone," Arthur said. "A fleet. It must have come from Lothian; that's the only place where they've had that many ships together. Griflet, extrapolate their course."
"What's all the noise?" demanded Guenevere, stepping onto the bridge.
"Good morning," replied Nimue.
"Stand down to yellow alert for now," Arthur told Bedivere. To Guenevere, "The Gaels attacked an outpost colony."
"What?" Guenevere came to an astounded full stop, still on the upper tier of the bridge. "But the Glastonbury treaty -"
"This is the first incident since the treaty that approaches this level of hostility," Lancelot said, "even including the recent confrontation at the Grail Planet."
"Where are the Glastonburians then?" Guenevere asked.
"Right," said Sir Griflet, "in the Gael fleet's path."
Every head on the bridge swiveled to the navigator, then to the main screen where he had transferred a tactical graphic of his course plot. A line starting at Lothian and proceeding through the Camellairn colony system impaled Glastonbury's sun right through the center. "ETA .67 days," said Griflet.
"Dinadan," said Arthur quietly, "can we get there first?"
Dinadan didn't consult his board. "By a few hours, Sire."
"Aye sire," said Dinadan, and brought the ship around.
Arthur looked over at Nimue. He'd expected grimness, but Nimue was white as a sheet. "Nimue?"
Nimue looked at Arthur, then back at Griflet's astrogational chart. "That's the planet you know as Glastonbury?"
"No reason." Nimue's attempt at the usual Avalonian bluster failed miserably. She turned away and sat in an unoccupied chair along the bank of engineering consoles and said nothing throughout the trip to Glastonbury.
"Landing range in five minutes," Dinadan said.
"Glastonbury is still not answering hails," Bedivere reported. At this distance, neither would there be any response for days to the report she'd sent to the Round Table.
"There are two possibilities," said Lancelot. "They are unable to respond; they are unwilling to respond."
"Unable," mused Guenevere. "You 'spose the Gaels have already taken them out?"
"No," said Arthur immediately. "The attack on New Cammelliard was a whetstone. If they'd already razed Glastonbury, they'd've been spreading away from there, and exercising not even that much restraint."
"So why haven't the Glastonburians stepped in?" Guenevere demanded. "What does it take, anyway?"
"Since the initiation of the treaty," Lancelot said, "there are no data to indicate what their criteria may be."
Guenevere scowled at him. "That sounds like you're saying they've never been heard from again."
"That is what I said."
While Guenevere digested this Arthur said, "Maybe they never meant to intervene at all."
"And if the Gaels have thought of that, their intentions toward both Glastonbury and the British can be guessed," Lancelot said.
"The exercising of no restraint," Guenevere guessed.
The word intervene brought back Arthur's perennial argument with Merlin and Nimue to his mind. He looked back at the sorceress. She hadn't moved since she sat down. Nor was it usual for either Avalonian to sit idly by when conversation was going on.
"Landing range," Dinadan announced.
"How much time till the Gaels arrive?"
"As soon as two hours."
"That gives us some time. Lancelot, Guen, Nimue, come with me." Arthur included the sorceress in the order as a matter of course, even though Nimue was obviously under no authority of his, just because the Avalonians always went in the boat with them.
"I'm not going in the boat with you," said Nimue.
Arthur, Lancelot and Guenevere all ground to a bemused halt on their way to exit the bridge. "Nimue, we need all the help we can get down there."
"I mustn't interfere," said Nimue.
To Chapter 3
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