"Aser blades and bows," observed Sir Sagramore, from the sounds of combat audible through the stairwell exit door to the first floor of the building.
"On heavy stun," agreed Boadicea.
Not to be outdone by a naked savage, Sir Gareth added, "Commercial model. Not as good as ours."
"All right, here's the plan," said Merlin, pushing past Gareth to the door. "All of you stay in here and admire my diplomatic skills."
Even Boadicea chorused with Gareth, "What's Plan B?!"
"Paper manuals," exclaimed Gawaine as the MTI technicians passed documentation to the Excalibur knights. "How quaint."
"It's difficult to maintain Christian humilty while describing my computer skills, Sire," Tristram observed, with casual lack of modesty, "but I'm not familiar with this operating system and can't guarantee control of the superbrain when it awakens."
"I'll just talk to it," Arthur said.
Tristram frowned. "These superbrains are sophisticated systems, Sire. 'A does not equal A' won't be sufficient illogic to crash them."
"Really, I'll just talk to it," Arthur insisted. "Really."
"It's a white flag," Merlin insisted, waving a handkerchief. "It's the universal symbol of truce."
"Not in my universe." The leader of the RAT&T commandoes, facing off with Merlin in the center of the MTI building lobby, raised his aser handbow to aim it at Merlin.
"I wouldn't ... too late," said Merlin, as a genuine metal knife - Boadicea's, of course - suddenly appeared halfway through the commando's bow hand. The man probably had never seen a solid matter projectile in his life, and that surprise must have been what kept him for some three seconds from starting to scream in pain.
The battle joined.
Gareth found himself and Boadecia under cover from handbow fire behind a couch that Merlin overturned for the purpose.
"I admire your diplomatic skills, Merlin," said Boadicea. "You lured the enemy right out." With a ululating warcry she executed a flip catapulting her to her next chosen piece of cover, slicing at RAT&T commandoes with her stun blade as she flew across the room.
"Loyal girl, Boadicea," Merlin observed. "Enthusiastic too."
"I know," said Gareth, getting his own aser bow off his belt. "I visited your escort in the ward. I'm still waiting for Plan B, Merlin," he added as his own bow charges joined the others flying back and forth in the lobby.
"Corporate," Merlin didn't seem to be listening. "Corporate," he was muttering to himself.
Gareth knew better enough than to think Merlin actually wasn't paying attention to what was going on. Getting him to come out with what he was thinking, though, could be a task for admirable diplomatic skills. "Pardon?" Gareth sallied.
"These aren't real soldiers," Merlin reminded him. Or himself, perhaps, analyzing the causes of his diplomatic faux paus. "They're only corporate hirelings."
As with one mind, Gareth and Merlin took in a deep breath and shouted, "Meeting!"
"Data compiled, Sire," said PIG.
"We're about a thousand connections short, plus-or-minus three hundred." Bedivere, stretched out on the floor next to the data port where PIG had plugged in, read from a tape printout extruding from what looked like PIG's mouth. Arthur itched to lie down and join them, but it didn't seem very kingly.
"Where can we get them?" Arthur thought aloud.
"Ask the kings," Gawaine suggested.
Arthur nodded absently; then with more conviction. "Sir Balin, Sir Balan, we need you to switch the government seat's comm service to this company."
"That wasn't exactly what I meant," said Gawaine.
At least Berbeus was pleased. "I'll need your thumbprints, Your Majesties."
When the switchover had been made, Arthur turned back to Bedivere and PIG. "Well?"
"Sentient processing has commenced," PIG reported.
"Is it saying anything to you?" Bedivere asked, as Arthur forgot kingliness and threw himself on the floor.
"'There is another computer.'"
"Tell it, 'Thanks, we know,'" said Arthur.
"I'm not sure it was chivalric," observed Merlin, visually scanning the lobbyful of unconscious corporate commandoes, "to stun them when they came out from cover."
"They fired on our truce." Gareth believed in situational chivalry. Give the opponent the benefit of the doubt ... until or unless he was cowardly or cruel. Then stick'im.
"As expected," said PIG "- and ahem usual for synthetic life forms - processing speed is orders of magnitude in excess of that of biological life."
"Implement the program I gave you, PIG," ordered Arthur, still stretched out on the floor next to the cybporc.
"Round Table database uploading," reported PIG, as the Excalibur and Two Swords knights looked on. "Upload successful.
"Host system contacting ratt.corp ...
"File transfer commencing ...
"File transfer complete."
This was the moment it all hung in the balance. Arthur thought he could hear everyone in the room not breathing.
"ratt.corp and mti.corp request negotiations," PIG finally reported, "to ally with the High Crown as Britain's first cyberspace kingdom member."
Arthur sat up, propped himself up on one hand, and gave Tristram a self-satisfied look. "'No diplomatic authority is available.' ..."
"I stand corrected," said Tristram.
It's good to be king.
"Ah! Good old CAVE." Merlin had led Arthur, Guenevere and Tristram - as well as Boadecia and PIG of course - on a leisurely tour of the Excalibur storage bays in trying to locate the interface between real space and the subdimension in which the Avalonian time-travel machine operated. It was finally found in Cargo Bay 11-DE: what appeared to be a door in the wall like any other door, if any other door on Excalibur had been large and mousehole-shaped and wooden with black metal trimmings. "We'll be on our way, Sire."
"Merlin ..." Arthur had been debating with himself whether he would ask this. But you don't get to be High King of all Britain - or not for any substantial amount of time - with timidity. "If a threshold of interconnections is all it takes, why hasn't any superconsciousness awakened on any other British world?"
Merlin turned as he followed Boadicea and PIG through the CAVE door, only just long enough to say, "Hasn't one?"
"Wait a minute!" Guenevere shouted angrily as the door shut. "Wait a minute!! What does that mean?" But the gong chime of the CAVE's dematerialization sequence had started, and the huge wooden door faded away as if it had never been there.
Guenevere turned her wrath on Arthur. "Why did you wait till now to ask him? Why didn't you ask before?"
Arthur just shrugged. "Because I knew he'd only say something like that."
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