Ship's log, supplemental: Straight and True has now been cloaked and keeping station with the Evilspace's wormhole on yellow alert for twenty four hours. The Alliance fleet is expected in another fifteen.
The Sherriff of Sherwood was doing her best not to fidget. After Morgan's initial outrage at the receipt of the signal from Lancelot and the other Arthur, she had calmed down. In fact she had made a great show of sitting down urbanely to wait things out, insisting that Little Joan do the same, calling her butler to Ops to serve tea and otherwise wait on the duty watch while his mistress extolled the virtues of civilization. But every once in awhile Morgan would look at the main viewscreen with the hatred in her eyes from when she'd spotted the spacestation floozy in the background of the rebels' signal. Whenever she saw this Little Joan looked away for something more pleasant - usually the butler. Perhaps again before Morgan left ...
"Sherriff," called the Nottingham at tactical suddenly. "A target. Coming in from the Boglands."
"What is it?" asked Morgan.
"Still too far to identify anything that small."
"On the main screen."
"Do they really think a ragtag fleet of boats and shuttles can take on an Alliance fleet?" Little Joan wondered aloud.
"That depends on how many of them answer to Lancelot's call," said Morgan.
"Arthur's call, you mean."
Morgan snorted. "That middle-aged has-been? I thought the last of him had been heard years before this time."
Little Joan looked over at him. "Is that how he's regarded on the other side?"
"Isn't it obvious? You saw him at Lancelot's side - what else could be thought of him?"
Little Joan chuckled derisively. "You have no idea what Arthur means to the British rebellion."
Sipping, Morgan looked at her over the cup.
"He's the symbol of everything the Empire could be today but for the Alliance," said Little Joan. "He's the one who persuaded Lancelot to reform the Empire in the first place. They call their leaders 'pendragons'."
"I've got an I.D.," said the tactical knight. "It's a boat, and it's actually running a transponder. The Molly Scarlett."
"Red," Little Joan growled.
"The Molly Scarlett," said Tuck.
"A transponder?" Robin asked. "He's just wandering out of the Boglands, wearing a sandwich board with bullseyes on it?"
"Arthur and Lancelot sent a message, with their message," said Tuck. "Putting it on the public channels said, 'We have nothing to fear. Let's get this out in the open.' Red's taking them at their word."
"We went to all the trouble of insinuating ourselves into their underground to get the message circulated quietly among the rebels," Allan-A-Dale grumbled, "and then we shout it from the rooftops."
"Tuck's right," said Marion. "It was the best way to tell everyone - friend and foe - that the rebels are mad as hell and they're not going to take it any more. Gotta hand it to Lancelot."
"No doubt Lancelot rigged the transmission," said Robin, "but the idea smells of Arthur's lateral thinking."
"We've still got an ally out for a stroll in a mine field out there," Marian reminded them. "Station's bound to take a potshot or two at him."
"Send one patrol scout after him," said Morgan. "Anything else is overkill for one boat."
The tactical officer looked at Little Joan. "Sherriff?"
"Do as he says." She looked at the sorceress. She was sipping her tea calmly, as if she knew her orders would be carried out. Well, she did. Damn her. It was a wonder she hadn't moved into Little Joan's office.
"Alliance patrol boat leaving stationkeeping," Allan-A-Dale reported. "Intercept course with the Molly Scarlett."
"Will they catch him before they're both in our cannon range?" Robin asked.
"The Molly Scarlett isn't really headed this way, sir."
"Marion, a tight-beam encoded squirt," ordered Robin. "Let Red know where we are."
"What did he swerve that way for?" Little Joan asked. Morgan didn't answer. Little Joan looked at her - she was watching the chase more intently now. "Morgan?"
The last day's tension boiled up in Little Joan. "I'm a fool? You're keeping essential information from me, you always do! That's usually how things go wrong!"
"Shut your mouth and open your eyes," Morgan growled genteelly.
The patrol had caught Red in their range and were shooting at him when, looking at the viewscreen, Little Joan's eyes crossed. Something was swimming into view, fading into existence out of nowhere - decloaking. Little Joan boggled at the armor and armaments on the ship. It didn't sit idle for her regard; the Molly Scarlett ducked behind it like a baby chick, and it fired once and utterly vaporised the pursuing patrol boat.
"What -" Little Joan blurted.
Morgan was standing now, seemingly at ease but with her hands curled into fists at her side. "Straight and True," she growled. It was some minutes before Little Joan realized this was the name of the ship. "Squatting right in front of it."
"In front of what?"
"Right in front of the jumpoff point for the invasion of the United Kingdoms," groused Morgan.
This was a revelation. "Invade the United Kingdoms? You don't play small, do you?"
"But why does it have to jumpoff there? What's so special about that point in space?" Morgan only resumed her seat, continuing to glare, not answering. Little Joan realized that this secret was what made the sorceress valuable to the Alliance; she must have convinced them that the invasion would work, while nevertheless keeping this card in the hole. Little Joan looked back at the monster hanging in the center of Morgan's plans. "You knew that was out there, when you sent the patrol after Red. Didn't you?"
"I thought it might be, after we saw the people from the other side in Lancelot's signal." The other side, Little Joan noticed she'd said; the sorceress was starting to use this universe's expression. "Only when the Molly Scarlett changed course was I certain."
"And you sent one patrol out there, knowing it was no match!"
"A small price to pay to flush them out," Morgan shrugged.
The Sherriff was no bleeding heart; but she didn't share the Saxons' and Nottinghams' outright thirst for blood, and she didn't like to waste resources. But she was learning why Morgan got on with them so well, so she exercised the better part of valor.
"Thanks for the save, sir," said Red on Straight and True's bridge viewscreen. "I don't want to miss the party."
"I wouldn't dream of going ahead without you," said Robin.
Red was looking at Will Scarlett, a little ill at ease. "How's Molly?"
Will Scarlett shrugged. "Great. Reading her own bedtime stories now."
Red nodded, smiling wistfully. "I haven't seen her in more than two years." He shook his head. "Well, call me when the guests of honor arrive."
"I expect you'll know," grinned Will Scarlett. Red grinned back and the screen returned to the visual scan of the station.
"That was easy for you," said Robin. "Meeting your other self, I mean."
Will Scarlett snorted. "Old hat for me. At least this wasn't a chronometric anomaly."
"Actually," said Tuck mischeviously, "Nimue says that going to parallel universes is traveling sideways in time."
Will Scarlett rolled his eyes. "I hate temporal mechanics."
"Alliance fleet ETA at Sherwood is eight point zero four hours," Illan reported on the viewscreen.
"Our ETA?" Dierdre asked.
"Eight point eight hours."
"Let's shave anything we can off of that, shall we?"
"Aye aye," replied both Illan on the screen and Fergus in the pilot's seat of this ship.
Arthur watched the way Dierdre ran the flight deck of her boat. He could well believe that she was a queen and captain in Arthur's universe. Despite the almost magical effect his mere presence seemed to have on the rebels, once back on her own ship Dierdre had snapped into command mode - and seemed to start regarding him as nothing more than a mascot or good luck charm.
"Another contact," called Allan-A-Dale at minus four hours. "No, six in close formation. Station's fired on them with aser battery three."
"Are we in range, Chief?" Robin asked.
"Barely, sir," said Will Scarlett. "Ours, that is. If the station wants to fire on us they're S.O.L."
"Let's send a message of our own. Mr. Allan-A-Dale, move up just into aser cannon range. Covering fire on battery three - continuous barrage until the shield fails and the battery's destroyed."
"Signal on audio from the newcomers," said Allan-A-Dale as the newcomers cleared the now silent, besieged battery, "in clear, I think."
"You think? Let's hear it."
"Knight level two." Robin thought the voice sounded familiar.
"That's Diarmuid of the Fianna," said Will Scarlett and Tuck simultaneously. At home, Diarmuid was first knight on the Excalibur - or had been until Veritas III, and probably would be again.
"Pawn level six." Red suddenly broke onto the channel.
"Pawn level six, acknowledged," the newcomer responded.
"Robin," sent Red, "that's code from my old resistance group. You're talking to one of the three people who know who the top man is."
"Their transponders read Knight Two, Queen Two, Rook Two, Queen Three, Bishop Three, and Knight Four," Allan-A-Dale read.
"Straight and True, this is Knight Two." Now Robin did recognize the voice for Diarmuid's. "Please consider us under your command."
"Welcome aboard, to you and your squad, Knight Two," said Robin. On the main viewscreen the six new ships were converging on Straight and True, turning in their course so that, when they came to station-keeping with Straight and True and Molly Scarlett, they also were facing the station and the oncoming fleet. "Not to complain, but may we expect your king?"
"Already here, Straight and True," said Knight Two. "'Fraid I can't say more."
"Understood," said Robin, though he didn't, really; only that there were still some secrets that didn't need a general airing. After all, the crew of Straight and True had been ordered not to be first to use the word "wormhole" in any communications with this universe's natives. But he had a good idea who King Level One might turn out to be.
Sherwood's aser battery three was destroyed some twenty-three minutes later when its defense shielding failed. Will Scarlett snorted, but having watched the process admitted having an idea or two he wanted to try when they were back on their Sherwood.
Rebel ships continued to trickle in, including the rest of Red's group from the Boglands. "Going up solo against a whole fleet is more my style than yours," the other Allan-A-Dale told Red (he was ignoring Straight and True, or at least Robin, which suited Robin). Beside Robin, his Allan-A-Dale didn't seem to recognize the voice. Robin allowed himself to wonder a moment whether the other Milla was out there, but then turned back to business.
Several more ships named for chess pieces arrived. One was one of two captured Alliance destroyers to show up. But everything else was scout class or smaller. They did have numbers, beyond even Robin's expectation. By minus five minutes the impromptu rebel fleet consisted of thirty-one ships, all of whom placed themselves at Straight and True's command.
None of them, though, were Arthur's.
"Pathetic," said Morgan.
Little Joan too didn't see what the rebels could accomplish against a fleet that had nothing smaller than a destroyer. But she didn't feel like agreeing with Morgan so she didn't say anything.
"Sherwood Station!" barked the comm. It was the Saxon Regent, commanding the invasion fleet. "We are two minutes out! Status!"
"There's a swarm of mosquitoes in your path," Morgan announced derogatorily. "Nothing the fleet and the station can't handle if you shoo them our way."
The Regent laughed, loud Saxon guffaws. "Today is a good day to live!" That seemed to be his signoff.
Little Joan shuddered. She'd spoken to the Regent by comm before but never hoped to meet him. On the other hand, the Sherriff of Nottingham was probably commanding a ship in this fleet - be nice if he could get a night's layover at the station after the battle.
Moments later the fleet flew past the station, all around, like a river past a rock sticking up through its surface. Little Joan watched the dozen Saxon and Nottingham ships go by with awe, never having seen so much firepower in one place before. The sorceress was definitely a power to be reckoned with if she could marshall such a massive strike force. It was as if Little Joan could hear the rumble as it went by.
She was hearing something.
There was a familiar undertone to the noise, but Little Joan couldn't identify it, largely because suddenly almost all she could hear was a screeching whine that made her ears hurt. Looking up to find the source, she saw that Morgan was in pain as well - but the Nottingham duty officers and the Saxon guards were actually passing out.
She placed the sound's undertone in her memory as it faded away - it was the same chime made by Morgan's CAVE. At the same instant she finally spotted its source. A large mousehole-shaped wooden door with ornate black metal hinges and handle was sitting in the Ops deck wall where the door to her office was supposed to be. She saw it just in time to catch three people exit it - the two space tramps, and Joan Little from the other side.
The boy had an ugly-looking homemade aser blade out. "All righty, move away from the consoles," he said. Little Joan and Morgan obeyed, raising their hands in the air.
"Nimue!" hissed Morgan.
"You don't seem terribly surprised," said Nimue. "I'll warrant you weren't so equanimitous when you saw me with Arthur and Lancelot in the civil defense broadcast."
"Your assumptions are as fanciful as your vocabulary," sneered Morgan.
What? The beanpole is the horrible menace Morgan speaks of? Then this "Merlin" was a little old man in a white beard? Little Joan wasn't given a lot of time to think about it, though, because the other Joan was approaching her. She was locking out station control systems as she proceeded. Little Joan suddenly realized how Robin had known the codes when he was here last month - how he'd suddenly some back to life after his ship was destroyed. It'd been the other one! Of course they'd changed the station commanders' codes since then, but they hadn't thought to change the exec's.
The other stopped right in front of Little Joan. "I despise dealing with bullies," said the other, her voice on the verge of breaking like a weakling's, "because they don't understand anything but their own methods."
Little Joan saw the other's fist very close-up for a split second - then the deck very close-up, and some stars.
Pelleas struggled to keep his attention on keeping Morgan and the Sherriff covered, over the increasingly vituperative demands for contact from the station that the Saxon fleet commander was broadcasting. On the one hand, the confrontation between Nimue and Morgan had quickly devolved into the same old meeting of minds, NOT!, that always developed when one got the drop on the other. Bo-ring.
On the other hand, the Sherriff was a much better match for the knight than Pelleas had expected of a pampered provincial governor. No schoolgirl hairpulling type stuff either - first blood had been simultaneous. In the CAVE Pelleas had offered to help, suggesting to Little Joan that fair play was all right, for the other guy; but Little Joan apparently had something to prove. It was a real championship bout and Pelleas was following it with enthusiasm.
"I wonder, young knight, if I might beg your assistance."
Pelleas spun around brandishing his laser blade at the voice behind him. The CAVE's sonic stun had been rigged to take out the Saxons and the Nottinghams - only the Sherriff and Morgan should have been left conscious! But this wasn't a Nottingham or a Saxon - it was a Briton, decked out in of all things black tie and tails, smiling imperturbedly at Pelleas and his weapon.
It was Lohengrin - at home, Sir Lohengin; Grail Knight, son of Sir Percivale of the three original Grail Knights ... and captain of the late Excalibur-D.
"All ships!" Robin bellowed. "They're trying to edge us toward the station!" Just as we expected. But these people weren't Crown trained - not trained at all in too many cases. The Alliance tactic was working.
"Bishop Four has two destroyers on him," Allan-A-Dale reported.
"Get us there," Robin ordered.
"We're not going to make it," Allan-A-Dale said.
There was a huge roiling flash from the main screen. "That was the Klothon!" crowed Tuck.
"We might make it," Allan-A-Dale said.
"Three of ours, one of theirs," said Tuck.
"At this rate," remarked Allan-A-Dale, "when we're all gone their 'invasion fleet' will consist of two ships."
"I don't like that scenario," Robin declared. "Give me another."
Apparently Allan-A-Dale wasn't listening. "Bishop Four is crossing into station cannon range!"
Robin watched Bishop Four on the visual display, waiting for the station to blow it away.
"What the hell?"
The two Nottingham ships that had cornered Bishop Four had obviously been sitting back expecting the station to join in too. In the intervening moments Bishop Four had damaged about thirty percent of one's weapons array and about sixty percent of the other's.
"The station's not firing," said Tuck.
"All ships!" ordered Robin. "Fall toward the station and regroup!"
"What if it starts firing eventually?" Allan-A-Dale asked.
"Opportunity knocks, Allan," said Robin. "Cover the retreat."
"They'll go for the wormhole if we're not between them and it," said Will Scarlett.
"They've knocked several openings through our line and not taken them," Robin said. "Nimue's right - Morgan is keeping that secret till the last moment. They don't know it's there."
"Robin!" called Marian. "Two new contacts. Coming from beyond the station. One's Illan. The other's transponder names it Bear."
Arthur means "bear", Robin thought.
"Straight and True to all ships," he sent. "Log transfer of flag to Bear."
To Chapter 7
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