"Straight and True to all ships. Log transfer of flag to Bear," said the speakers.
Arthur and Lancelot had placed themselves behind Dierdre and Fergus without their hearing. Arthur spoke to the comm, making the rebels jump. "All ships, continue to fall back and regroup."
Dierdre slapped the comm off and turned to Arthur snarling. "Who do you think you are?"
"Your input is appreciated, Pendragon Dierdre," said Lancelot. That was how Arthur learned what British rebel leaders were called. "But who do you think I am?"
"You're right, of course," said Dierdre after a moment. "But this is my ship."
"You're right of course," said Arthur instantly. "I'm not used to the courtesies of flag rank."
Later he decided that had he tried to charm her he'd've blown it; but he gave it to her all business and she took it that way. Now, though, a voice in his head whispered, You hated it when you had to be a king instead of a knight.
I hated when I had to fly a desk, he told it. Damn little chance of that in this fleet.
Meanwhile he was eying the visual display as Bear passed the station and approached the rear lines of the retreating rebel fleet. The rebel retreat wasn't panicky, though it was a little haphazard for lack of training, and the battle was in a relative lull. "All ships, please," Arthur said, and when Fergus had the comm back on, "This is Arthur Pendragon. Our objective is not destruction and slaughter. These are the enemy's weapons. We don't need them. We won't use them.
"Our objective is the disablement of the recent modification to each of the ships in the Alliance fleet. Science scanners are to pinpoint this modification on each enemy for targeting, and analyze for effective countermeasures."
"We don't all have analytical scanners!" someone on all-ships objected.
"Those of us who do," said Arthur, "will get the information out." Lancelot was already firing up Bear's, probably in response to its progress into the battle zone. Fergus was ranging Alliance ships and taking shots at them now.
"What kind of modification is it?" came another voice.
"It will probably read like a plasma leak," said the deep voice that had transferred flag to Bear. "Straight and True's engines are running under a similar modification to what we expect. Check our emissions for comparison."
"I have a target for Straight and True," said Lancelot on the channel. "Broadcasting target specifications."
In moments the subspace waves burbled with target coordinates. The weapons flashes of the rebel ships began concentrating on specific areas of their Alliance enemies, trying to wear down the shielding in those spots.
"They like me," said Arthur. "They really like me."
Dierdre nodded. "Those plasma emitters aren't stopped yet."
"Give me a minute," said Arthur. Dierdre saw right through him and grinned anyway.
"I really think your friends have my superiors sufficiently distracted," Lohengrin said to Pelleas with aplomb. "I have the security codes for Morgan's files on the fleet. I think your rebel friends could use the file data, and they'll get it more quickly if I have help."
Pelleas looked back at the argument and the fight. Lohengrin had a point. Neither Morgan nor the Sherriff had any inclination or luxury to look their way. He lowered his blade and nodded. Cripes, though, this Lohengrin was giving him the creeps and he didn't know why. "How did you get the codes?"
"You might be surprised how alone people think themselves when only the servants are about. This way, sir," he said, waving the knight ahead. He ushered Pelleas to the Ops datalibrary console, and Pelleas helped him call up files and compress them, Lohengrin dictating directions to the knight in an urbane, polite tone.
Finally it was all done. Pelleas had been peeking back at the sorceresses and the Little Joans intermittently, and Lohengrin was right, they were occupying each other just fine. Hadn't noticed Pelleas was gone, or what he and Lohengrin were doing. Lohengrin saved it all onto a cartridge, walked the cartridge over to the comm station, where the Regent's demands for signal contact from the station had devolved into unimaginative curses. Lohengrin slipped the cartridge into a transmission slot there, and sent, "King Level One. Copy data squirt, please."
"King Level One," murmured Robin. That voice he recognized with no trouble, as did everyone else on the bridge of Straight and True.
"It's coming from the station," said Allan-A-Dale.
Tuck was playing the squirt. "Robin - this is all the specs of every ship in the fleet! Including defense shield frequencies!"
Someone on Bear must have been as fast or faster an analyst than Tuck (Robin's money would have been on Lancelot, though Robin had no idea where Nimue'd got to). "Arthur to all ships. The data squirt you received from King One contains the shield frequencies of our target vessels. Adjust your asers and target the plasma emitters."
Red got a signal from Allan-A-Dale and Tuck. "Have you seen this data?" Tuck asked.
"I haven't had a chance to catalog it yet," Red said drily.
"It's not just the complete specs of these ships," said Allan-A-Dale. "It's everything on the shipyards at Brest, too, where the work was done. Including the security codes!"
"The security codes? For the shipyards?" Red realized what Allan-A-Dale was thinking. The plans for Straight and True he'd downloaded while he was on the other side's Sherwood Station ...
"Ace!" cheered Pelleas.
On the Ops viewscreen he and Lohengrin watched the tide of the battle turn. One by one each of the Alliance ships took a direct hit on a portion of its engine nacelles directly through its shields as if they weren't there. The Regent had fallen silent on the subspace waves by now.
"There," said Nimue to Morgan. Her tone had changed dramatically, or rather it wasn't as dramatic any more as it had been until now. Pelleas saw Morgan realize that Nimue had only been keeping her decoyed from the battle. "Your fleet is effectively defenseless, and its method of crossing over destroyed. You could try to convince the Alliance to make another attempt, but I think they'll be concentrating rather on domestic problems for the foreseeable future."
"You fool," hissed the Sherriff to Morgan. She and the other Little Joan were staggering, almost holding each other up, but now she swung on Morgan. "Now they'll take the station!"
"Eventually, I'm sure, but not today," said Nimue.
"With these codes," Allan-A-Dale said, "our two boats could take the yards. The whole sector fleet's here."
"You're daft," said Red, planning the attack in his head.
"We could keep it, too," said Tuck. "We could build our own ships."
"You're as daft as he is," said Red, planning that in his head.
"We won," Dierdre breathed.
"Let's take the station," said Fergus.
"No," said Arthur. "We're not going to take the station."
"Why not?" Dierdre bristled.
"We've defeated the enemy's primary purpose," said Arthur, aware he was still on all-ships, "and we've rendered them defenseless. We've achieved our objective.
"But we're still outgunned. The only reason they're not firing on us now is they don't want to make us mad. If we turned on the station now, we'd make them mad and they'd turn on us. That's more than we can chew.
"But we still beat them, today. We kept them from spreading their violence and oppression any further, today. Tomorrow we'll build on that.
"You are ordered to retreat to safety, and go about your business - fighting the Alliance. And know that every one of you is a hero."
"You heard the man," Tuck said to Red.
"Last one there isn't a hero after all," said Red.
If anyone noticed that two of the boats from the Boglands group left the scene of the battle in unseemly haste, no one ever said anything.
"You have no power here," Nimue said to Morgan. "Be off, before somebody drops a house on you."
Morgan stalked for the elevator. "Lohengrin! Attend me!"
"Thank you, mistress, no," said Lohengrin, ramrod straight, with the same little smile. "I believe the Regent would feel it's time I returned to his service."
Pelleas finally realized what was different about this Lohengrin. They both presented the world with a wall of self-possession, but "his" Lohengrin was always expressing his feelings, and this one fortified his behind the wall.
Morgan growled in petty frustration and charged off to wherever she'd parked her CAVE.
"Stupid ... arrogant ... bitch!" The Sherriff muttered epithets after Morgan until she felt a tap on her shoulder and turned to look. Pelleas would have bet that she never saw or felt the roundhouse from the other that finally decked her for good.
Nimue tsked. "Joan, Joan. Violence is never the way. Did you enjoy that?"
Little Joan was panting, leant over with her hands on her knees where she stood. She shook her head.
"Then why do it?"
"Because," Little Joan gulped, "because she didn't enjoy it either. Nimue, I want to go home."
Nimue nodded, then turned to Lohengrin. "May we offer a lift?"
"Thank you, no. This position is extremely useful, and I've managed not to lose my cover yet. I shall be on the station when the Sherriff recovers consciousness, and when the Regent arrives."
Nimue tipped her hat, and led Pelleas and Little Joan into the CAVE. Once inside she said to Little Joan, "One stop first, before I take you back to Straight and True." Little Joan nodded and dropped exhausted into a chair.
Nimue set coordinates and put the CAVE in motion. The flight lasted hardly any time at all, and when Nimue opened the doors and disembarked Pelleas followed.
The CAVE had landed on Dierdre's boat. It appeared to fill the teleporter compartment. Dierdre, Fergus, Arthur and Lancelot regarded it with varying degrees of amusement, astonishment and annoyance.
Nimue indicated the CAVE to Arthur and said, "Home, James?"
"The CAVE? Your home, Nimue," Arthur said.
"I can take you any place, any time."
"It's not a moral inversion any more, is it?"
"'Any more'?" Nimue's eyebrows converged for a moment; then flew apart. "No, I don't suppose it is." She tipped her hat at Arthur in salute. It wasn't just anyone who could surprise her.
Arthur looked at Dierdre, and at Fergus. They weren't people accustomed to asking for things, Pelleas knew, but he saw hope on their faces. Then Arthur looked at Lancelot, another Lancelot whose life he had changed forever - and this one's during the space of mere hours, a hundred years before.
"In every revolution, there is one man with a vision," said Lancelot. "I tried to be that man. I failed."
Arthur regarded Lancelot for a long moment, then turned back to Nimue. "No thanks, Nimue. Maybe I'll catch the next one."
"I would have liked to meet Arthur properly," said Robin, as Straight and True sailed out of the wormhole, out of Evilspace, toward Sherwood Station.
"Now, Captain, would you?" said Nimue. "This wasn't the young, vigorous Arthur you see or imagine when you're reviewing log entries on the incident at Craig-y-Ddinas or the battle at the Grail Planet. This was the King Arthur of his post-retirement days, an old man with his glory past and knowing it. All his stories have already been told."
"Maybe there's something to what you say," Robin said, deadpan.
"The Arthur you want to meet is the young, vigorous Arthur. And of course that's impossible."
"Don't you sometimes say," said Tuck, "that with time travel, nothing is impossible?"
"Do I say that? Come along, Pelleas." Nimue tipped her hat, and she and the knight left to make their way belowdecks back to the CAVE.
"She has a point," Robin admitted. "No one likes to think their heroes' days are over."
"Unless I miss my guess," said Tuck, "she was saying you should hold out for your first choice."
"What was all that at the end, with King Arthur?" Pelleas asked.
"Do you recall when all this started," said Nimue, leaning on the console thoughtfully as the CAVE took off, "Robin quoting Arthur's log of the first crossover, and I dismissing Arthur's comment?"
"Force of habit. Starcruiser captain," Pelleas grinned.
Nimue shot him a token glare before continuing. "There are two types of parallel universe: the warped reflection and the alternate history. When Arthur first encountered Evilspace and called it a 'moral inversion', he was inferring that it is a reflection."
"Well it is, innit?" said Pelleas. "'Sgot one of everyone this one has."
"It did then," corrected Nimue. "Another Arthur, another Lancelot; another whole U.K., though its name and flavor were greatly warped. But while British space flourished, the Empire fell. Sir Robin commands Sherwood, Captain Robin was a slave then a rebel to Sherriff Little. Their Lancelot and ours still live; their Robin and Marion are dead while their Milla of Locksley lives. There may be no Midge there at all. Most telling: the reflections there of heroes here are more and more often heroes rather than villains."
"So it's an alternate history after all?"
"So I thought," said Nimue. "But Arthur saw it for what it truly is before I did."
"In the boat, when he surprised you."
Nimue nodded. "Evilspace was a mirror universe - when it was a closed system."
She waited till Pelleas saw it. "The first crossover!"
"What's the danger of traveling in time, even sideways?"
"Arthur changed their history!"
"The ion storm did. Evilspace was a reflection of us, and we them, but now it's an alternate history - not of us, but of itself. That first crossover - and not necessarily anything our people did during it - introduced an instability. That's why the Empire fell so soon before its Lancelot predicted to our Arthur that it would.
"Of course, our universe is an alternate history now too. But it was too stable to be affected by the deviation as much as theirs was."
"Doesn't make their lookout sound too good," Pelleas said dubiously. "Do you think they'll be all right?"
Nimue smiled and turned her attention to her instruments. "I shouldn't worry any more about that universe now, Pelleas. It has Arthur Pendragon looking after it."
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