"'God'?!" Berbeus repeated, exactly as if Arthur's entire presence here was an affront to him. "What kind of pagan do you take me for?"
"So Merlin's right," Arthur said. "You're racing with the comm service on Red Armor to be first to wake up a superbrain system."
Realizing he'd given himself away, Berbeus sank defeated into his fancy imitation unicornhide executive chair. "It was just a theory at first! ...Years ago I saw what might happen if the threshold were reached. And I mentioned it to another executive here, Garlon."
"Garlon?" Balan repeated. "Who's now C.E.O. of Red Armour Teleaudio & Telegraphics?"
"MTI was on the verge of the threshold several years ago," Berbeus said, then repeated when the gathered knights complained that they couldn't make him out when his face was buried in his hands. "That's when I realized that Garlon was a little too interested in seeing it happen. He thought it meant we'd rule the world. I was more relieved than I can say when the comm industry was deregulated and we were broken up.
"But then Garlon realized I mistrusted him and he went to Red Armour to start his own company. I didn't think anyone would believe my story - I saw no way of stopping him but by beating him to it."
"If it's escalated to armed corporate conflict," Merlin said, "then one or both of you must be close to -"
"Executive! Knights!" The receptionist with the labyrinth on her head burst into the office unannounced. "An RAT&T strike force has taken possession of the grounds and the first floor!"
"That's impossible!" Berbeus popped up from his chair again like a jack-in-the-box. "Our counterintelligence and theirs are on too equal a footing for them to launch any attack without our knowing, let alone a successful one!"
Merlin shook his head quietly, thereby arresting the attention of everyone in the room. "There's one way it's possible: If their counterintelligence has suddenly become more intelligent."
Arthur realized what the sorceror was saying first. "Garlon has made his threshold. He has his superbrain."
A wave of despair swept through the room, knocking the jack-in-the-box back into his chair. "I don't know what to do. I'll do whatever you say."
"Your Highnesses?" Under the autonomy policy Arthur needed Balin and Balan to give their consent.
"We bow to your superior experience and ability in extreme situations," said Balan.
"He means, please save our arses," said Balin.
"Right," said Merlin, turning to the high king of all Britain to give orders. "I'll see what can be done in the operations center while you hold off the intruders."
"Why do I always have to to the soldiering?" Arthur grumbled.
He had actually meant it as a rhetorical question.
"All right," said Merlin after a moment. "I'll take Boadicea and your guards downstairs, and you take PIG and your staff upstairs."
"The stairs, not the elevators," said Sir Gareth. King Arthur had put him in charge of the detachment to defend the lower storeys of the building. Gareth was too polite to ever speak aloud if he had any complaints with leading a squad in tandem with Merlin, but the phrase "too many cooks" kept popping up in his mind.
"Good thinking, Sir Gareth," said Merlin. "By the way, space armour suits you better than scullion's motley."
Gareth nodded as he led the two time-travelers and about six knights into the stairwell. "At Pentecost Tristram knighted me and King Arthur gave me a quest."
"A successful quest, I hope?"
"I suppose you could say a quest was successful," Gareth grinned, "when, in addition to defeating all the knights God sends you, you come home with a new wife."
"Ahh," said Merlin. The sorceror seemed to react to the word "wife" with uncharacteristic silence. Gareth was left to recall court gossip about Merlin's former apprentice Nimue. There was much speculation why it should have been that she had stopped traveling with him so suddenly.
But Gareth's mind was more on the upcoming confrontation - and on keeping as low as possible the level of internal conflict seemingly inevitable when the sorceror got involved in Round Table operations. He'd be better able to work with - or around, as the case may be - Merlin's actions if he knew what they were going to be. "So," he asked, "what's the plan?"
"First, assess the tactical situation."
Gareth had been afraid of that. "No plan."
"Of course not," said Merlin, cheery again. "It's too early for plans."
The MTI operations center was on the top floor of the building. The technology was of the highest, most modern available to the private sector. Tristram struggled to keep from turning up her nose rudely at it.
Arthur gathered his people around him. "What are we going to do, Sire?" Bedivere asked.
Arthur had a thought, but first he wanted to see whether anyone else had any better ones. "Suggestions?"
"At this late date in the proceedings, our options are rather limited," said Tristram. No one else said anything.
"Yes," Arthur answered her. "The only one I can think of is to fight fire with fire."
"Indeed," said Tristram. She'd probably had the same thought as Arthur. No doub her chivalry had prevented her from coming out with it and stealing Arthur's fire.
"Sire?" Gawaine asked.
In answer, Arthur dropped onto his haunches and addressed Merlin's robot. "PIG, jack into a port and give us a readout on what more it'll take to wake up this superbrain."
to Chapter 4
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