"This interplanetary war is between long distance companies?" said King Arthur.
"Between Red Armour Teleaudio & Telegraphics," said Sir Balin, pointing to his brother king Sir Balan, "and Master Two Swords Intercommunications," indicating his own rule over the planet Two Swords.
"Ahh," nodded Merlin. "Who else could so immobilize two planets' communications as to force the government back to radio?"
"Then I'd like to speak to ..." Arthur realized he'd lost track of all the proper names. "Which one was here on Two Swords?"
"Master Two Swords Intercommunications," said Balin. He pointed across the plaza whose coordinates the Excalibur boats had been given for landing, at a tall building with a glass face. "That's their headquarters."
The receptionist on the top floor of the glass building had her hair piled atop her head and and woven into a pattern Arthur imagined must have a miniature Minotaur hidden within.
"King Arthur and knights," Balin announced, "to see the CEO." Arthur wondered why Balin didn't announce his own name, as the planet's leige lord. From the response, Arthur guessed that Balin had tried that previously with no success.
"Do you have an appointment?" asked the receptionist without looking up.
"If 'appointment' means 'a lesson in respect due your legal lord'," said Boadicea, placing the point of her knife at the back of the receptionist's neck just under the hairline, "I have one for you."
"Go on in," said the receptionist, in a much higher register. As the knights marched past her - Sir Gareth casually slicing her intercom's cord with his aser blade when she activated it - Arthur reflected on the list of broken bones suffered by Sir Blamour when he tried to keep Merlin and Boadicea from Arthur's briefing on the Excalibur, and wondered whether the knight or the receptionist had dealt with Boadicea more intelligently.
"Who are you?" demanded a rabbitty man inside the office. He sat behind a large desk and wore a fancy merchant's tunic. "How dare you -"
"Well, I'm Merlin the sorceror," said Merlin, who as usual had contrived to be first into the room, sweeping down on the CEO with his cape billowing out behind. "And you are?"
"I'm Berbeus, CEO of Master Two Swords Intercommunication," said the rabbitty man, instinctively responding to Merlin's extended hand by shaking it.
"Pleased to meet you, I'm sure," said Merlin. "This is my friend Boadicea and my friend King Arthur and some of his well-armed friends ... and these," he concluded, introducing Balin and Balan, "are the people of Two Swords-Red Armour - as represented by the lords charged by God with looking after their welfare - here for the explanation you owe them ..."
Berbeus started babbling denials and protestations of innocence and ignorance, in response to which the brother kings began shouting accusations. "I have a hard time believing," Arthur hushed them, "that this is all about comm service competition."
"Good for you, Sire," said Merlin. "I'm quite certain that there's more to this than what we've been told so far by these good knights. In fact I've got a good idea what it is." Berbeus seemed a little shaken by that notion, and Merlin didn't miss it either. "How about it, Berbeus?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," Berbeus blustered.
"This isn't a war, Sire," said Merlin to Arthur, "it's a race. A race not for customers per se, but to build a system as large, as complex, as the humanoid brain itself."
Arthur's face fell. "You don't mean -"
Merlin turned back to Berbeus. "You're each trying to acquire sufficient interconnections to create and awaken an artificial consciousness, aren't you?"
"Sweet Jesu," Arthur moaned. "Not another computer god."
to Chapter 3
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