Excalibur log, A.R. 114.2: The Excalibur is bound for the Four Stones system, in response to a confused message to the Round Table from a two-planet consortium of allies in that system ...
"War?" repeated Sir Dinadan.
"Between Round Table member kings?" said Sir Gareth.
"Again?" said Sir Gawaine.
King Arthur shared the sentiment. The purpose of the order of knighthood he'd created had been to put an end to the sort of intersystem fighting that had characterized British space since Roman days until the time of his father Uther, who'd unified the kings of Britain but only in the face of a common threat. But Arthur already knew what his department heads were just learning; he remained silent so they could listen.
"The signal from Two Swords-Red Armour," Dame Bedivere explained to the knights assembled around the conference table, "was garbled on their end. The imbedded recognition codes indicated that the message originated with the formal biplanetary government, but the text suggested an armed conflict between parties on Two Swords and parties on Red Armour."
"And we're to stop it?" asked Queen Guenevere.
"That could be construed as a violation of the autonomy policy," said Dame Tristram. Or, she would have said all that if Guenevere hadn't interrupted her.
"Oh be quiet," she griped. "You cried 'autonomy policy' on Meliot, and this isn't an intraplanetary conflict any more than that was."
"It is my duty as first knight," said Tristram, in that casual haughtiness attainable only by those whose egotism is warranted, "to alert the king to any possible ramifications of his decisions. Particularly since this is an intra-governmental matter -"
Arthur understood how his queen might harbor resentment against the ship's new first knight (since the old one had been his friend and her secret lover and had left the Excalibur to assist another woman in raising a foundling they had discovered together) but he wished it wouldn't manifest in public bickering. "Even if it's civil war," he cut in, "Balin and Balan are both allied kings and they've requested assistance. I've already considered the autonomy policy issue and have decided to take action."
"What action?" Gawaine asked. For an engineer Gawaine had always been a little bloodthirsty.
"First - find out what's going on," said Arthur pointedly, trying to calm Gawaine. "Then render assistance as requested - military, moderation ..." He shrugged.
"It is unfortunate that no diplomatic authority is available in the area," observed Tristram.
Arthur frowned at her, a little hurt. After all, he had reunited British space at the beginning of his reign with a minimum of hostilities. "Well, I wouldn't exactly say ..."
"Your Majesty!" An unexpected voice came from the conference room entry. There stood the time-traveler Merlin, an old man in a white beard. "You remember Boadicea." Unlike Merlin's usual traveling companions, Boadicea wasn't an apprentice given him by his fellow Avalonian sorcerors but someone he'd picked up during his travels. She was a savage, whose wardrobe consisted entirely of a knife in a handmade leather arm-sheath, two or three other small leather ornaments, and a coat of blue paint. Merlin was dressed only slightly less eccentrically in a black tuxedo, a red-lined opera cape and a tall top hat; a black white-tipped walking stick in one hand.
On the other side of Tristram from Arthur, Bedivere leaned slightly closer to the first knight and whispered, "Be careful what you wish for."
"What's this then?" said Gawaine, looking at Merlin's feet. Arthur had to crane his neck past the conference table to see what had so enthralled his engineer. There was a metal object following Merlin and Boadicea into the room. It was mounted on a tripod of wheels and seemed to be self-motivated. At the front of its half-meter oblong body extended two inches of a double-barrelled aser snout. On top and toward the front were two triangular navigation sensor dishes. From its back end protruded the looped rod of a standard I/O plug (identical to the one Bedivere wore in place of the hand lost in a Saxon battle during Arthur's early reign).
"That's my new personal intelligence gathering device," said Merlin. "Say hello, PIG."
"Hello," said PIG. Pretty powerful processing for its size too; Arthur would have expected it to say Hello, PIG.
"Why wasn't I notified that the CAVE had landed on the ship?" Arthur asked Tristram, needling her back for the diplomat remark.
"When the bridge notified me of its arrival," Tristram replied with a frown at Merlin, "I elected to have Merlin's party escorted to recreation, and to advise you when the meeting was over."
"Well-intentioned I'm sure, Dame Tristram," said Merlin, still circling toward their end of the table, "but surely you don't expect games to involve me when there's work to be done?"
"Our escort awaits you in the ward, doctor," Boadiea added to Guenevere.
Guenevere, enjoying Tristram's having got into trouble, now sat up straight. "In the ward?"
"Well, probably," said Boadicea. "He seemed still able to walk."
That was the end of that briefing.
Though his shortness with Tristram had been mostly affected - mostly - Arthur really didn't think he wanted Merlin's involvement in whatever was happening on Two Swords-Red Armour. The time-traveler had a marked knack for excaberating the chaotic element of whatever Excalibur missions he participated in. "This is a British internal matter, Merlin," Arthur explained to the sorceror as he awaited the approach contact with Two Swords-Red Armour on the Excalibur bridge, "and likely a military action. I don't think we'll need your -"
"Sire," Bedivere called, "I have Sir Balin and Sir Balan, on old-style E.M. radio, voice only, from Two Swords."
"On speakers," said Arthur, though he'd've preferred to have argued Merlin off the bridge first.
"Excalibur!" came a low, dry voice. "At least you got here before things got worse."
"This is King Arthur," Arthur said. "We'll land an armed party at your coordinates -"
"Oh, by all means arm yourselves," came another higher, fluttery voice. "But the ones we really need are your best scientific minds. Two Swords-Red Armour out."
"I'm ready when you are, Sire," Merlin grinned.
Arthur really would have preferred to have argued Merlin off the bridge first.
Arthur elected to bring a detachment of security-trained knights as well as most of his department heads. Merlin insisted on bringing Boadicea and PIG. Two boats landed in the main square of the capital city of Two Swords. Waiting to greet them were two men in robes of rank and badges of chivalry. Arthur may or may not have known them for brothers if he hadn't already been aware. They shared a certain distinct similarity of feature; but one was tall and thin and stooped and still, and the other was of only medium height and round and fidgety.
"Sire," said the tall one as they both bowed, "I'm Sir Balin, king of Two Swords. This is Sir Balan, king of Red Armour. In theory we're in charge here."
"It is most fortuitous and against all expectation that we were able to initiate communication with the Round Table to expedite your arrival," said Balan.
"They're glad we're here," Merlin translated to Arthur in a whisper.
"Your majesties, what's the problem?" Arthur asked. "Your message spoke of armed conflict but the Excalibur sensors don't -"
"The armed conflict is actually a minor component of the problem," said Balan.
"Then neither Two Swords or Red Armour armed forces are involved?" asked Merlin.
"They would be," snorted Balin, "if we could call them."
"All modern communications are at a standstill," Balan said.
"I'll give'em this," added Balin, "there have been no non-corporate casualties. 'Course that's because neither of them wants to alienate customers."
"Pardon me if I'm being terribly dim," said Merlin with no indication that his manners were at all forced, "but between whom exactly is this war?"
"Corporate long-distance communication service providers," said Balin.
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