Ship's log, supplemental: The first contact mission to the Saxon world has taken a bad turn. According to Ban and Ector, the supralight drive ship which the Saxons claim to have built, they can't have built - it must have been seized from aliens who landed here previously. And - perhaps in anticipation of this discovery on our part - General Cerdic has taken hostages: three of my crew and Merlin's three companions.
"Entirely illogical," Ban insisted to Uther. "To my own certain knowledge, Cerdic has actually witnessed the teleport process on at least one occasion."
King Uther had called Ban, Ector and Merlin into the briefing room with himself and Leodegrance. Sir Gorlois was on the speakers - Cerdic and his people hadn't even taken the landing party's comms. Uther had first been notified of the situation by the hostages themselves.
"He cannot possibly be unaware that we can rescue our landing party at will," Ban concluded. Teleportation technology had been disappearing from British space since the Legions pulled out, taking the maintenance technicians with them; but of course the king's flagship had one of the last working models.
"The Saxons don't have any kind of force-field shielding, do they?" Leodegrance asked Ector. "Anything that might defeat teleportation?"
Ector shook his head. "The most advanced tools they have are their laser weapons. There's no indication that they can keep us from teleporting."
"Confirmed, sire," came Gorlois's voice. "The scanner doesn't show any such thing."
"Then what's the point?" Uther was confused and frustrated - not a state, Ban had observed, which the sons of the last Count of Britain suffered gladly. "What's he trying to accomplish?"
"It's a test of your honor," Merlin announced.
"It's a what?" Uther's frustration was aggravated rather than appeased.
"If you remove the hostages, you show no faith that Cerdic will treat us fairly."
"Treat us fairly?" Ector exploded. "By locking us up, out of the blue?"
Merlin's eyes didn't leave Uther. "You have a choice, sire. You're in their home territory. Deal with the Saxons on their terms and earn their respect, or ignore their expectations and insult them. Is that the level of tolerance your Kingdoms stand for, hm?"
"Respect?" Uther repeated, increduluous. He counted off on his fingers. "They lied to us about how they acquired that ship. They tricked us into supplying them with enough information to create supralight technology, and from what you say it's disseminated all over the planet already. Now they've taken hostages, including your friends! Three strieks!" Ban had heard Uther use this expression before, but to date had been forced to infer its meaning from context. "And I'm supposed to continue accomodating them? I wonder what your friends think of that idea."
Ban heard Helena's voice over the speaker, muted by distance from Gorlois's pickup: "It's the Druids all over again."
"Druids?" Uther snapped. Ban saw the point, but disagreed that the situations were entirely analagous, and so didn't interrupt as Uther continued. "No, Merlin, they have it backwards if they think I need to earn their respect. I want our people out of there. Gorlois, stand by for teleport. Ector, I want you to handle it, just in case." Ector was the closest to an teleport expert on the ship.
As everyone rose from the briefing room table, Ban head Merlin mutter, "Military minds ..."
"I wonder what your friends think of that idea," came Uther's voice over Gorlois's comm.
Helena was right behind Merlin on this and wanted him to know it. "It's the Druids all over again, isn't it?" she said, leaning forward toward the comm.
"It is, isn't it?" Demetrius agreed as the comm conference continued. "You'd think, with such a diverse crew, they'd be a little more tolerant -"
"All the same I don't fancy spending the afternoon in here," Ygraine opined.
"You won't," said Gorlois, shutting his comm. "King Uther is sending Sir Ector to the teleport to pull us out."
"I hope he knows what he's doing," said Helena, as Cerdic and a couple of soldiers opened the door and entered. They were carrying what looked like bowls of live worms or slugs. At their entry Jordanus moved casually to place himself between them and the rest of the Excalibur party.
"I will not have it said you were starved." Cerdic and the soldiers proffered the bowls of crawling things.
"Oh my," said Ygraine. "Is there anything Saxons don't make a struggle of? Not even eating?" Yeoman Caradoc's reaction was less articulate.
Then Helena heard the whine of the Excalibur teleport. Cerdic must have heard it too, and probably before the humans did, because the last thing Helena saw on the planet's surface was Cerdic tossing aside the bowls he'd been carrying and leaping to throw his arms around Jordanus.
Then they were on the platform in the Excalibur teleport room. Helena was screaming, as were Ygraine and Caradoc. Demetrius and Gorlois were ashen-faced. On the sixth teleport pad was a homogenous pile of bubbling, liquifying organic matter, with an oddly sweet smell ... that looked roughly equal to the combined mass of Jordanus and Cerdic.
"Who was it?" Uther was standing in front of the teleport console. Merlin, Ban and Ector were standing behind it, grim expressions and perspiration on their faces. Later Helena would wonder how long they'd all been in teleport limbo.
"Cerdic," Demetrius choked off. "He jumped on Jordanus just as ..." Words failed him.
After a moment of horrified silence - but for a soft, obscene gurgling from the thing on the teleport pad - Ban said, "Perhaps we should notify the planet."
"Yes, yes, you're right, Ban," said Uther slowly. Ban followed him out; so did Merlin. Ector was on the intercom, ordering a cleanup crew. The others of the landing party seemed only to want to quit the teleport room, but Helena went after Merlin and the king, catching them up at the elevator. She needed to see the end of this.
"Get me the Saxons," Uther said as they entered the bridge, to a young knight who looked like an African or an Arab. Uther took the chair in the center of the circular bridge when his first officer yielded it for the port position at the freestanding console just in front of Uther's chair. Ban took post at a console along the circular wall to starboard. Merlin went to stand next to Uther. Helena stayed by the elevator doors, out of the way.
"On speakers, sire," said the Arab after a moment.
"What do you want?" came a Saxon growl from the bridge speakers. Merlin seemed to recognize the voice.
"This is King Uther of the Excalibur. I need to speak to a High Councillor."
"Well, you'll have to wait a few minutes until a messenger can be sent." Helena remembered that the Saxons communicated with the Excalibur by means of the radio in the stolen spaceship.
Despite the first Saxon's pessimism, there was a new voice on the speakers in less than a minute. "This is Alfred. Where is General Cerdic?" Cerdic's soldiers must have told Alfred what they'd seen; he would have been on his way to the radio already when Uther placed the call.
"Cerdic is dead," said Uther bluntly. He probably meant to be rude, but to Helena it seemed the most Saxon thing she'd seen of him. "He interfered with our teleport process, killing himself and one of my crewmen. I'd offer you the body but -"
"It is just meat now," said Alfred. The unintentional literalness of the statement nauseated Helena anew. "In any case I want nothing from you, Zultonol."
"I'm sure not," barked Uther, "now that you've stolen spaceflight capabilty from us."
"All is fair in war," said Alfred, "and life is war. May we meet in battle one day, so I might show you for the vermin you are."
"Signal terminated, king," said the Arab.
"Get him back, Palidomes."
"What's a zultonol?" Uther asked Ban as Palidomes turned back to his board.
"Zultonol betrayed his true dishonorable nature with a murder," said Helena, all eyes on the bridge turning to her in surprise. No, not surprise from Merlin, approval. "His victim is remembered as the founder of a great dynasty."
"Sounds to me, king," said Merlin, "as if he has named you Judas, hm?" Uther glared at Merlin, but any reply was forestalled by Palidomes' report.
"They're not answering, sire."
"They're not going to," said Merlin.
"Damn!" Uther pounded on his chair arm. After a moment's fuming he said, "This can't happen again. We need some sort of directive to keep anyone else from doing the kind of thing I've done here."
"Very wise," said Merlin sagely.
"Pellinore and Bagdemagus will agree with me when my report gets to the Council, and they have influence with the opposition," Uther continued, mostly to himself. "An injunction against interference in a new planet's affairs -"
Uther stared at Merlin. "Who do you think you are?"
"You cannot live in a vacuum, sire! The hard sciences agree with the soft on this point: You shall affect those around you, inevitably. You can't just observe."
"Merlin, today I handed space travel on a platter to a planet of hopeless barbarians!"
"Ha!" snorted Merlin. "Barbarians indeed. Such stupid, willful ignorance. Mark my words, sire, the day will come when the British media will be as fascinated with Saxons as they are with Benwicks at present."
Uther ignored that. "Nothing like this must happen again."
"So learn from your mistakes. I know how you feel, sire; remember, I was the one who actually uploaded all that data onto their planetary network. And just because I see more to them than you do doesn't mean I don't also see what you see. But space exploration by a band of knights is an inspiration and can become a force for great good. Don't hobble it!"
"Perhaps you have only your own conscience to answer to, Merlin," said Uther more calmly, "but a High King has the Kings' Council of Britain, and by extension every citizen of every planet. Including future citizens of future member planets, who may not come to exist if I go around handing loaded weapons to every first contact."
Uther's descent back into reasonable tones brought Merlin with him. "I am sorry you trust yourself so little, sire, and I hope your fellows on your Council have wiser heads. For myself and my companions, I think it is time for us to thank you for your hospitality and be on our way."
"As you wish," said Uther. "Prince Ban, would you take Merlin and Helena to their friends, and escort them to their CAVE?"
Ban took them to the ward where Dame Elaine of Cornwall was examining Ygraine, Demetrius and the rest of the landing party for adverse effects of Cerdic's interference with the teleport. There were no ill effects obvious, and Elaine reported Ygraine fit; though Ector had not been so sanguine about the teleporter itself. Elaine saw Helena next. While talkative as he waited with Ban and the others for Helena (Gorlois flirted with Ygraine, who responded with inexperienced bashfulness), Merlin avoided the subject of the day's events.
"I predict the Kings' Council will enact such a policy as the High King proposes, Merlin," Ban finally said to him. "There are too many precedents in too many planets' histories of a more technological society willfully or accidentally affecting another for the worse. And it is consistent with the Kingdoms's existing policy of planetary autonomy for members."
"No interplanetary confederation is an island, you know, Prince."
Ban nodded. "There is force to your argument, Merlin. Yet today the British have an enemy we did not have yesterday, most likely a formidable one when it comes out of its system in, I estimate, no more than 5.13 years; and I shall always regret the part I played." Perhaps, Ban mused, he would go into the diplomatic corps and set himself to repairing this breach, if his father outlived Ban's space service and Ban had some years before the throne was his. But it was illogical to speculate now. "I must say I disagree with you too, as I have throughout this affair."
Merlin smiled and gave Ban a friendly pat on the shoulder; which transmitted to Ban exactly none of the usual telepathic leakage that made him and most Benwicks avoid physical contact with other species. "Well, my dear chap, I shall have to return another time to persuade you, eh?"
Ban regarded Merlin and with precisely calculated "dryness" said, "I have no doubt that you shall."
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